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

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

What makes a city Islamic?

An ideal Islamic city is the one whose layout, urban fabric, design and function, are inspired primarily by Islam, are permeated with the Islamic spirit, and stand for the embodiment of Islamic principles and values. It facilitates, fosters and stimulates man’s ceaseless ‘ibadah (worship) activities entrusted to him by his Lord, helping him thus to elevate his status over that of the angels and honorably live up to his reputation as the vicegerent on earth.

Central to the standards by which a city may be categorized as Islamic, is the holiness and purity of its philosophy, vision and utility, accompanied by convenience, efficiency, security, sustainable development, and anything else that Islam reckons as indispensable for living a decent and accountable life. The sheer physical appearance is therefore inferior, and matters only when it comes into complete conformity with the said criterion.

Since it accounts for both a worldview and a comprehensive way of living, Islam draws no distinction between the religious and secular realms along ideological lines. God’s words of guidance are bidden to be evenly exalted, adhered to, implemented, and made supreme in each and every department of human existence. The word ‘Islamic’, as employed before ‘city’, thus does not denote a mere cultural phenomenon, philosophy or just another religious conviction, but a genuine faith and its abiding all-inclusive belief and value system. The word ‘Islamic’ is an adjective delineating a phenomenon that is vital for human socio-political, economic, psychological, and, of course, spiritual advancement. That phenomenon is a settlement that imbibes and reflects the special qualities inherent in Islam, and whose framework, design, form and function, therefore, are – to a large extent – dictated by the latter. In view of that, the idea of the Islamic city (Madinah) in its broadest sense encompasses its conception and philosophy, policies, amenities, facilities, services, economy, planning and architecture. The Islamic city is an all-inclusive phenomenon. Its complex and multifaceted morphology is made up of both religious and secular buildings and institutions, such as mosques, government buildings, madrasahs (schools), numerous other religious structures and establishments, private dwellings, markets, caravanserais, palaces, citadels, hospitals, gardens, street networks, open spaces, etc. Religious and secular functions are not separable in Islam, and, as such, not in the Islamic city either. The Islamic urbanism never drew a wedge between man’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs.

If one genuinely wants to understand and appreciate the Islamic city, one must, first and foremost, possess an intimate knowledge of Islam whose major precepts and values it exemplifies. Next, one should disengage oneself for a moment and as much as one can from whatever one has formerly perused or has been told about the Islamic city and make an earnest effort to experience it in its totality as if one were among its users/inhabitants. One should try hard through one’s hands-on experience if one wants to feel the spiritual and sensory aura that the Islamic city exudes within its realm. One’s comprehension and appreciation of the Islamic city should not be restricted to just one, or a few, of its aspects, nor to a single and static moment of time. Rather, one’s thoughts and interests should encompass all its aspects and dimensions, showing due respect in the process to its remarkable spirit and dynamism which are conditioned by neither time nor space factors. Finally, whatever one’s approach in studying the Islamic city might be, one should never try to extricate it from the contexts which governed its commencement, rise, dominance and survival. The Islamic city should be viewed as a revolutionary world phenomenon as universal, omnipresent, perpetual and revealing as the standards and values that gave rise to it. True, it was as responsive to the climatic, geographical, technological and cultural requirements as any other urban settlement, nevertheless, it never treated them apart from the exigencies of a higher order. By means of skills, creativity and imagination, on the one hand, and by its distinctive combination of aesthetic and utilitarian ends, on the other, the Islamic city never, even by a whisker, dissociated man’s corporeal, psychological, cerebral and spiritual needs.

Relying solely on the five senses while studying the phenomenon of the Islamic city would be an inapt method, that could be corroborated by the following statement of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, as regards investigating, grasping and experiencing the essence or the fundamental nature of a thing: “The eye perceives the outer and the surface of things, but not their inner essence; moreover, it perceives only their shapes and their forms, not their real nature.”[1]

 Life in every city is dynamic and diverse. Consequently, the city must cope with the demands of ever increasing changes and developments, if it is to live up fully to the purpose of its establishment, and if it is to fulfill the trust “assigned” to it and, in consequence, be of assistance to man in discharging that which he has been created for. Hence, it can be safely asserted that the Islamic city is a transformational, educational and training ground or axis. The solitary aim of its institutions is to produce in concert with each other a people qualified to be dubbed as true servants of Allah and His vicegerents on earth. Regardless of minor disparities in their intellectual, spiritual and socio-economic commitments and so accomplishments – which are, all things considered, unavoidable and inexorable – the same people’s efforts will enforce and rely on each other, holding together in unity and strength, with each part contributing strength in its own way.

Among every people there must always exist a group of exceptionally devout, enlightened and visionary individuals, capable of transforming entire communities in which they belong. Thence, the same persons will contribute somehow or other their decent shares in making this earth a better place for living. Without a doubt, the larger this group, the smaller and thus less troublesome is the group on the diametrically opposite side of the scale. The latter group stands for the community’s liabilities rather than its assets, and so recurrently gets in the way of the community’s spiritual and material progress. On the other hand, the smaller the group of extremely devout, erudite, committed and visionary persons in a community, the more favorable the conditions become for mediocrity, incompetence, backwardness and ignorance to triumph and hold sway over the people’s affairs. So therefore, if misconstrued and its role perverted, the city has a potential to become a breeding ground for diverse social and psychological diseases, which, if left unchecked, could proliferate and one day paralyze entire communities – the whole of mankind – indeed, dragging them to the bottommost. In this case, the only remedy for the predicament will be the restoration of the original position and role of the city, that is to say, the recognition and restoration of the position and role of individuals, the family, and all the concepts and components of which the city phenomenon is made up.

Certainly, it was because of what we have said thus far about the character of the Islamic city (Madinah), that the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, while starting off the mammoth project of building the city of Baghdad in the year 145 AH /762 CE, by placing the first brick with his own hand uttered: “In the name of Allah; praise be to Allah; the earth is Allah’s, to give as a heritage to such of His servants as He pleases, and the end is best for those who are righteous.”[2] The message conveyed in the supplication appears very clear: everything belongs to Allah – the only Creator, Sustainer and Ruler. He is the only Creator, the rest is His magnificent creation, His servants. Moreover, He is the real Owner of everything. Man possesses de facto nothing; everything around him has been subjected to him, not that he may “own” it, or in the worse scenario play “god” with it, but that he, in a responsible and unhindered manner, may carry out his duties of vicegerency, returning then to his Creator pure and honorable – no more than that. Even his very self, i.e., his life, man does not own. It belongs to his Lord, and if needed, he is to sacrifice it for Him and His cause. Says Allah: Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Garden (of Paradise): they fight in His Cause, and slay and are slain; a promise binding on Him in Truth, through the Torah, the Gospel, and the Quran: and who is more faithful to His covenant than Allah? Then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme.(al-Tawbah 111)

What’s more, the prayer of the caliph al-Mansur indicated that whatever the Muslims may build – at whatever scale – the appropriated space will never be regarded as exclusively for man, nor will its owner(s) and tenant(s) do. Rather, the appropriated space will be viewed as something temporarily loaned to man, so as soon as he goes back to his Creator, nobody but he alone will be held accountable for what he did to the loan, how he handled it, and what he managed to achieve with it. Thus, it is not surprising that the Muslims often store in their hearts and minds the following Qur’anic supplication: “Say: “O Allah! Lord of Power (and Rule), Thou givest Power to whom Thou pleasest, and Thou strippest of Power from whom Thou pleasest: Thou enduest with honor whom Thou pleasest, and Thou bringest low whom Thou pleasest: in Thy hand is all Good. Verily, over all things Thou hast power. Thou causest the Night to gain on the Day. And Thou causest the Day to gain on the Night; Thou bringest the Living out of the Dead, and Thou bringest the Dead out of the Living; and Thou givest sustenance to whom Thou pleasest, without measure.” (Alu ‘Imran 26-27)

The Muslims keep their tongues busy reciting this supplication in their daily prayers, as well as during their individual and collective dhikr (remembrance of God) sessions. They even adorn their private dwellings and public buildings and spaces with it, thereby reminding themselves constantly of this substantial – albeit often disregarded by many – truth. The same is true with other Quranic verses containing the similar message, such as: Allah! There is no god but He, – the Living, the Self-subsisting, Supporter of all; no slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth(al-Baqarah 255); or: To Allah belongeth all that is in the heavens and on earth. Whatever ye show what is in your minds or conceal it, Allah calleth you to account for it(al-Baqarah 284)

  Surely, due to such an inimitable heavenly dimension, which Islam instituted in the field of architecture and urbanization, did the caliph al-Mansur engage a group of the people endowed with virtue, integrity and fidelity, from different regions, in order to supervise the project of building the city of Baghdad, apart from one hundred thousand craftsmen, engineers, architects, masons, carpenters and blacksmiths whom he had hired from every province. The most prominent among the caliph’s workmen were Abu Hanifah of Kufah, one of the four most illustrious jurists in Islam, and al-Hajjaj b. Artah, a traditionalist and jurist who lived in Kufah along with Abu Hanifah and later served as the judge of Basrah. The latter was, furthermore, the architect of the Baghdad’s principal mosque, laying its foundations by himself. He also played a prominent role in planning the northern suburbs of the city of Baghdad.[3]

   Also, when Mawlay Idris decided to build the city of Fas (Fez) in northern Africa (Morocco), having sketched the groundplan of the city and before construction got underway, he recited the following prayer: “O my Lord! You know that I do not intend by building this city to gain pride or to show off; nor do I intend hypocrisy, or reputation, or arrogance. But I want You to be worshipped in it, Your laws, limits and the principles of Your Qur’an and the guidance of Your Prophet to be upheld in it, as long as this world exists. Almighty, help its dwellers to do righteousness and guide them to fulfill that. Almighty, prevent them from the evil of their enemies, bestow Your bounties upon them and protect them from the sword of evil. You are able to do all things.”[4]


The Islamic city and the notion of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar)


In addition to being a transforming, educating and training ground for both individuals and groups, the Islamic city (Madinah) is at the same time the field of the inexhaustible confrontation between good and evil. The originators and advocates of sin may come from either within or without. Their damaging feat may be either transparent and direct, or opaque and indirect. Nobody but the citizens whose vision and demeanor stand as the embodiment of the Islamic worldview and its value system will be able to grasp the essence of the conflict and, hence, rise to the task of engendering and spearheading the defense of the dignity, aspirations, and intellectual, spiritual, cultural and physical sovereignty of the community. Indeed, participation in the struggle is incumbent upon everybody – of course within the framework of everyone’s abilities – always remaining proportionate to the sort and intensity of the predicament.

However, not only when facing difficulties should the city, with its personality building and sustainability schemes, be suddenly brought to life, but, on the contrary, it must at all times be at guard. It must ceaselessly rear the causes of, and strive to create, sound and healthy civilizational constituents, while doing away with such as may lead towards generating and immortalizing the immoral acts that in turn assure man nothing but degradation and misery. As we have stated earlier, the city with all its sections, should contain, further initiate, promote and stimulate the basic beneficial enterprises of man. This means that it is neither fair nor productive for the people to be asked to live an ethical life if the urban conditions where they live push for the contrary, or at least get seriously in the way of achieving the envisaged goal. The same applies to a number of other put forward initiatives, by and large related to education, work, social interaction, integration, entertainment, mass media, etc.

It is on account of this that the injunction of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar) occupies such a remarkable position in Islam. It is as much a personal as social duty to get involved in stifling every form and degree of wickedness, and enjoin the establishment of good practices instead, by whatever legitimate means that a people may come up with within the ambit of whatever capabilities they may enjoy. Hence, the reward for exercising universally al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar is enormous. In fact, the reward is but commensurate with the massive impact of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar on the life and “survival” of the Muslim Ummah in particular, and on the triumph of good over evil across the globe in general. In one verse, Allah ta’ala reveals that the formula for the Muslims to become the best people ever evolved for mankind, is to believe in God and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. (Alu ‘Imran 110)

Allah also unveiled the path to the attainment of the Muslim Ummah’s cohesion and supreme potency when He said: “The Believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, pay Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.” (al-Tawbah 71)

Against the background of this portrayal of believers stand hypocrites whose account is given in the same place in the Qur’an, just four verses earlier than the above verse: “The Hypocrites, men and women, are alike: they enjoin evil, and forbid what is just, and tighten their purse’s strings. They have forgotten Allah: so He hath forgotten them. Verily the Hypocrites are rebellious and perverse.” (al-Tawbah 67)

Conversely, the punishment for abandoning the institution of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar is appropriately grave and severe. Again, the punishment is but commensurate with the contributions of such an act to the suffering and desolation not only of the Muslims, but also of mankind as a whole. The Prophet (pbuh) says, for example: “You will observe the commandment of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar or else Allah will mete out to you a stern punishment. Thereupon, you will (regret and) implore His mercy, but to no avail.”[5]

Also: “You will observe the commandment of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar, encouraging each other to do good, or else Allah will destroy you with a torment, or will appoint the worst amongst you to rule over you. Thereupon, the best amongst you will implore Allah’s mercy, but to no avail.”[6]

The Qur’an explicitly says that curses were pronounced on those among the Children of Israel who rejected Faith by the tongue of the prophets Dawud (David) and ‘Isa (Jesus) because they did not “forbid one another the iniquities which they committed: evil indeed were the deeds which they did.” (al-Ma’idah 79)

Certainly, the Islamic weighty command of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar had such a remarkable impact on both the psyche and moral fiber of the Muslims that its spirit saturated virtually all actions and thoughts of theirs. Unavoidably, the same experience further mirrored itself very much in the urban form and function of the cities (settlements) in which the Muslims lived. This was the case because cities (all settlements of the Muslims) are the field for their cultural and civilizational pursuits, and also because all human beings are predisposed to express, in everything they do, their outlook on life, on reality, and on the whole of the universe – unlike animals which act on the basis of their intrinsic instincts without reasoning or training.

In order to illustrate our point, let us give a few examples.

Firstly, as the most conventional thing, in the heart of the Islamic city there was normally a principal mosque – rather, a mosque complex – which served as the focal point of the religious, intellectual and socio-political life. The mosque stood as a community development center with almost all basic amenities having been made available under the mosque roof, or under the roof of other abutting edifices which were built and integrated into the complex for the needed purposes. The physical stature of the mosque was advanced as a guidepost, and its philosophy as an inspiration and guidance in all the other development, building and planning undertakings. By this arrangement, accessibility, convenience, comfort, transparency, safety, and better interaction among citizens, were kept very much alive and trouble-free.

Secondly, adjoining, or in close proximity to the mosque, a market with goods like candles, incenses, perfumes, books, and even cloth, textile, jewelries  and leather, was consistently located. Having the market near the mosque complex meant facilitating the chore of commanding good and prohibiting evil in it, as the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions regularly did, thus setting a precedent which was followed ever since. Many mosque-bound individuals were regularly passing through the market for discharging the duty of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar. Such people may have had other matters to attend to in the market, nevertheless, the subject of joining together in the mutual enjoining of Truth, and of patience and constancy, as well as the subject of helping one another in righteousness and piety and not in sin and rancor, remained forever a supreme one in their sight, taking precedence over all other matters and issues. In determining the market location, both traders and buyers were given a chance to visit the mosque, a community center, not only for their daily worship practices, but also for many other needed purposes. Along these lines, their working culture and moral fiber could be corrected and enhanced by the pervading aura so effortlessly experienced in the mosque, as well as in the attitudes and manners of those patronizing it.

Industrial trades like the blacksmiths, the dyers, and the tanners, as well as the market where goods from the countryside were sold, were customarily situated on the city periphery, lest they might cause disruption or nuisance to individuals and institutions. Nevertheless, such places have always been considered part of the general urban setting, and, as such, could never be neglected by the propagators ofal-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar, be they government employees or any other interested and fervent persons. This was one of the reasons why such trades and markets were normally positioned near the city gates, at the main geographical entrances into the city, and along the busiest thoroughfares leading towards the city.

And thirdly, around the mosque complex private houses constituting compact neighborhoods, would always cluster in the Islamic city (Madinah). Identical outwardly and bent on sharing public utilities, they were interconnected with narrow, labyrinthine – yet sufficiently expedient and functional – street patterns. Open public spaces were reduced to a minimum. This spatial arrangement was pregnant with many a benefit for the life in the city: it fostered interaction between the people; it promoted the role of the family institution and with it the role and stature of the house institution; it facilitated maintaining the cleanliness and orderliness of public places; it promoted maximum utilization of available spaces; and, last but not least, it played a role in preventing some potential social hazards from occurring, such as vandalizing public property, alienation, self-centeredness, social inequality, open transgression and its promotion, etc.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the emergence of the institution of hisbah in Islamcoincided with the emergence of the phenomenon of the Islamic city. Hisbah meansmaintaining law, order, fair trading and everything that is right, not only in the city markets but in all its public sectors. For Ibn Taymiyah, the scope of hisbah covers “ordaining that which is fitting and proscribing the improper in those spheres not reserved to the governors, the judges, the administrative officers (ahl al-diwan), etc.”[7] The first instances of the hisbah activities are found nowhere else but in the city of Madinah, during the Prophet’s time, when the prototype Islamic city gradually came into being. The matter henceforth was evolving steadily. It corresponded with the incredible growth of the civilization and culture inspired by the Islamic worldview, as a result of which the emergence of a good many complex, bustling and thriving urban settlements in different corners of the vast Muslim land was necessitated.


[1] Gonzalez Valerie, Beauty and Islam, (London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2001), p. 26.

[2]Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, (Beirut: ’Alam al-Kutub, 1996), p. 282.

[3]Al-Tabari, The History, Translated and Annotated by John Alden Williams, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), vol. 29 p. 6.

[4]Moustapha Ahmad Farid, Islamic Values in Contemporary Urbanism, (unpublished), paper presented at the First Australian International Islamic Conference organized by the Islamic Society of Melbourne, Eastern Region (ISOMER), 1986, p. 6. Burckhardt Titus, FezCityof Islam, (Cambridge: The Islamic Text Society, 1992), p. 64.

[5] Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Fitan ‘an Rasulillah, Hadith No. 2095.

[6] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Baqi Musnad al-Ansar, Hadith No. 22223.

[7] Ibn Taymiyah, Public Duties in Islam, p. 25.

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