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

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

La darar wa la dirar(There is neither inflicting nor returning of harm)

One of the most important Islamic principles that govern the relationship between the residents of the Islamic city (Madinah), between them and the government, is the one highlighted in a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh): “There is neither harming nor reciprocating harm”, or “There is neither injury nor return of injury.”[1] The message of the hadith is that everyone should exercise his full rights in what is rightfully his, providing the decisions/actions do not generate harm to others.[2] Likewise, none shall return injury in case it has been inflicted on him, intentionally or otherwise. The people are instead encouraged to share both their happiness and sorrow, care for each other, respect the rule of law, and peacefully settle their disputes. This way, they will secure sound and friendly relations, as well as a healthy environment conducive to all kinds of human constructive engagements.

Islam not only guarantees its followers the right to freely and honorably live and act, but also does everything to ensure that they enjoy a decent, healthy, peaceful, joyous, prosperous and quality life, contributing to the process of sustaining the welfare of mankind and the universe as a whole. In Islam, the concepts of equality, justice, righteousness and decency, are universal and immutable, permeating and governing every aspect of human existence. Not in the slightest can anything thereof be compromised for whatever reason by anybody. These are the rights God has ensured man under the aegis of His religion, Islam, and they stand for some of the most vital ingredients needed for the successful accomplishment of man’s mission of vicegerency. But such are not to be turned into the objectives of man’s life, as a consequence of man’s abandonment of heavenly guidance and direction.

Likewise, of the rights which have been divinely assigned to man before he was even created, is the freedom of worship, freedom of spiritual and intellectual enhancement, freedom of pursuing God’s bountiful gifts that He had bestowed on His vicegerent, right to honorably live in the shadow of ultimate justice, equality and security. It follows that unduly denying a person any of these favors by means of deliberate injustice, oppression and haughtiness, falls in the category of the greatest sins that one can perpetrate. This is justly so, because the perpetrators, by such actions “encroach”, as it were, onto the divine plan meant for the whole of mankind, attempting thereby to tamper with it for the sake of their own egoistic and shallow aspirations. So perilous is the evil of loose and unbridled tyranny and conceit, that if aided by other grave vices it may easily turn into a form of shirk, or associating other gods with Allah. The best witness to this effect is definitely history, many instances of which the Holy Qur’an keeps highlighting to mankind so that they may reflect on them. 

Allah – be He exalted – says on the divinely given rights enjoyed by man: “Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete His favor to you, that ye may be grateful.” (al-Ma’idah 6)

“Say who hath forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of Allah which He hath produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He hath provided) for sustenance? Say: They are, in the life of this world, for those who believe, (and) purely for them on the Day of Judgment. Thus do We explain the Signs in detail for those who know.” (al-A’raf 32)

“And strive in His cause as ye ought to strive, (with sincerity and under discipline). He has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion; it is the religion of your father Abraham. It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation)…” (al-Hajj 78)

Sadly, though, the aforementioned divinely-given rights and privileges of man – which at the same time represent means and instruments for the realization of his principled mission on earth — have since time immemorial been disappearing from the scene of reality owing to different man-hewed factors. Due to their pertinence to man’s physical, spiritual and psychological survival, striving to secure a degree or amount of these same rights and privileges, as a consequence, had to become in the end the sole obsession and goal of a good number of ancient as well as recent ideologies, philosophies and movements with diverse characters and outlooks. Being thus excessively obsessed with the subject of means, man possesses neither enough energy nor productive time to spare, in order to distinguish and realize the objectives to which such means may eventually lead.

The life essence of the ordinary people – a majority in every society that has adopted and implemented the devious and vagrant philosophies, ideologies and movements – is perhaps the best illustration of how all-encompassing and dominant the said state of affairs and, of course, its distressing consequences are. If one thing is to be learnt by examining the present reality, then it would be the fact that the people’s aspirations and, as such, aims of life, do not exceed the parameters of enjoying a decent and proper dwelling, a decent job, enough nourishing provisions, or undemanding access to education, entertainment and other amenities, as well as enjoying an essential degree of justice, equality and security. Taking into consideration everything however, human logic and consciousness cannot help inferring that man must have been created for something more virtuous and dignified to strive for and dream of; man’s life ought to be lived for the sake of fulfilling worthier and much more rewarding ideals. God thus says: “I have only created Jinns and men, that they may serve Me.” (al-Dhariyat 56)

Also: “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? – Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name) ?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” And He thought Adam the names of all things; then he placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell Me the names of these if ye are right.” They said: “Glory to Thee: of knowledge We have none, save what Thou hast taught us: in truth it is Thou who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.” He said: “O Adam! tell them their names.” When he had told them their names, Allah said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal, and what ye conceal?” (al-Baqarah 30-33)

Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi wrote on this: “It is certainly the duty of the khalifah to make everything possible to enable every member of the ummah to earn and enjoy God’s bounty on earth. But this purpose, noble and necessary as it may, quickly degenerates into crass animality and degradation, a warping of human personality and betrayal of the whole divine will, once it is regarded as the sole or final end of human life. The material needs of life are innocent and indeed good; they are to be satisfied to as high a degree as possible. But they and the whole material aspect of life which they are to sustain are only a means, an instrument, a carrier for the spiritual, whether for the individual or for the ummah as a whole. To hold the material pursuits as the final end is to deny the spiritual.”[3]

Every rebellion against God and His words of guidance creates costly and painful repercussions for man, not only in the Hereafter but also in this world. The Qur’an says: “But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, they shall be Companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein.” (al-Baqarah 39)

“But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment.” (Ta Ha 124)

By rebelling against God, man commits nothing but injustice to himself, as he denies his soul its essential right and gift granted to it by its Lord in eternity, i.e., the right and predisposition to worship its Creator, Cherisher and Sustainer. Moreover, by virtue of his possession of the primordial disposition (fitrah) to worship, on the one hand, and by virtue of his fundamental qualities such as cerebral incompetence, psychological fragility, mortality, haste etc., on the other, man will have no choice but to seek an alternative for what he has previously repudiated. He will desperately attempt to furnish his demanding soul with the appeasing answers on a large number of compelling questions, with respect to his existence and the existence of the other surrounding animate and inanimate beings. However, this will only result in fashioning the myriad superstitions, cults and contrasting ideologies and religions, which will add nothing constructive to human knowledge or human well-being; they will only increase error and wrong-doing being always associated with mutual hatred and enmity among the people.

In abandoning God and revelation, man is bound to abandon his projected role and status on earth as well. The quintessence of his existence will, in the end, be gravely distorted, and at times, relegated to that of animal kingdom – and sometimes even lower. Allah declares: “Many are the Jinns and men We have made for Hell: they have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, – nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” (al-A’raf 179)

Allah also says: “Or thinkest thou that most of them listen or understand? They are only like cattle; – nay, they are farther astray from the way.” (al-Furqan 44)

Verily, the city in Islam (Madinah) is a place where the word of Islam – a comprehensive way of life – is thoroughly implemented at every scale. Hence, regardless of cultures or historical and geographical elements, Islamic cities always shared many a common characteristic, such as the urban fabric, function, unifying symbol systems, and individual, family and societal values, in addition to their inhabitants having one and the same perception of life and death, of reality, of space and time, of history, of man, and of the community. It must be also borne in mind that Islam, with the hierarchy of its teachings and values, was the sole force which furnished the Islamic city with both its essence and identity, relegating the indigenous geographical, climatic and other inherited factors and features, to almost nonessential.

When studying the Islamic city, proper attention ought to be paid also to the implications of the fact that such a phenomenon — which originated with the advent of Islam on the world scene — has never existed before, even though the peoples that became instrumental in molding and perpetuating its conspicuous identity, had lived where they were for centuries before embracing Islam, and possessed the cultures and civilizations of their own. To be sure, studying the Islamic city by no means can be separated from the total framework of Islam: its genesis, history, ethos, worldview, doctrines, laws and practices. Any approach by anybody and at any point of time, to extricate the Islamic city from that which held sway over its conception and formation, would undoubtedly result in failure, and, worse yet, may distort the real picture of the entire subject matter, and with it the picture of Islam.

With the provision and organization of its vital components, the city in Islam aims to accommodate the social, economic and religious requirements of its populace. It furthermore facilitates various highly dynamic activities meant to satisfy such requirements. That is not all, though. On account of the verity that comprehensive excellence and the Islamic notion of worship — the whole life of a devoted Muslim is worship, ‘ibadah — are inseparable, cities in Islam therefore, are created in such a way that various productive human engagements are not only accommodated and facilitated, but also stimulated and made alluring via the introduction and augmentation of sundry aesthetic elements, via the recognition of every citizen’s role and stature in the community (city) development process, and via the transparent unreserved exertion of both the government and public to ensure that the immutable values championed by revelation are duly attended to and applied. All the said values, services and amenities are essential in the city. If they are made available, only then will it be fair to ask its dwellers to listen, obey and embark on contributing their expected shares in the long and demanding community building and sustaining process. By the same token, only then will it be fair to ask the people to cherish and safeguard the city (state) and the ideals upon which it has been founded, against both internal and external threats, sacrificing in the process their personal whims and aspirations, and if necessary, their lives.

With its overall aura and atmosphere, the urban form and function, the city in Islam is bound to mirror the only Islamic criterion for discriminating between the people, i.e., “… the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you.” (al-Hujurat 13) Never and under no circumstances, can this criterion be violated. Anything else served by anybody, and at any point of time as an alternative to this divinely prescribed standard, is deemed alien to the Islamic tawhidic worldview, and as such ought to be rejected outright. If assented to, such and similar alternatives, customarily shrouded in infidelity, materialism, greed, hedonism and egotism, will soon prove an obstacle in man’s genuine civilizational headway, adding no lasting contribution to human well-being and increasing but error and wrong-doing.

The Muslims are brothers to each other and their similitude is like a wall whose bricks enforce and rely on each other; or like a solid cemented structure held together in unity and strength, each part contributing strength in its own way, and the whole held together not like a mass but like a living organism.[4] Highly creative and visionary urban planning concepts and models need to be put forth as the corporeal manifestations of the relationship that ought to exist among the Muslims, as well as the manifestations of the spirit that must pervade all the departments of their daily interactions.


[1]Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Ahkam, Hadith No. 2331.

[2]Hakim Besim Selim, Arabic-Islamic Cities, (London: Kegan Paul International, 1988), p. 19.Akbar Jamel, Crisis in the Built Environment, (Singapore: Concept Media, 1988), p. 93.

[3] Al-Faruqi Isma’il Raji, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995), p. 151.

[4] The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the commentary of the verse 4 from the al-Saff chapter. (Note No. 5433)

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