Institutional Decentralization in the History of Islamic Cities: The Role of Rapid Urbanization

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

Following the full institutionalization of many roles and functions of the mosque, the Muslim society and the way it functioned underwent quite a few drastic changes from what it used to be. There became many independent socio-political, educational and religious institutions which were responsible for advancing, guiding and administering the society. Those institutions gradually evolved from the simple and rudimentary roles and functions which were performed by the mosque institution since the earliest days. Their evolution went hand-in-hand with the evolution of the Muslim society and its civilizational and global aspirations, goals and challenges. Following the latest developments, the Muslim society became a complex and multi institutional one. The mosque institution, despite its most prominent and most influential position in society, was just one of many institutions. However, most of those institutions still clustered around the central mosques in Muslim cities and towns — where in fact they initially had been conceived and whence they had originated — while a few other institutions were positioned elsewhere due to the reasons related, mainly, to the unavailability of appropriate and strategic spaces in the central point of a city or a town with a principal mosque (jami’) in it. Some institutions stood away from the central mosques and the cities’ inner focal points, furthermore, due to the fact that their functions would be optimized and their objectives better accomplished if they were positioned somewhere else clear of the bustling and congested nucleuses of the city centers. Some examples of the institutions which were positioned farther than the city centers dominated by the main mosque (jami’) were those institutions which did not always serve the interests of all the strata of society, such as hospitals, detention and rehabilitation centers, specialized educational establishments, etc.

This partial decentralization of the institutions that once originated and were nurtured under the aegis of the mosque as a “mother” institution, was somewhat foreseeable also because of a rapid urbanization in major Islamic cities which in turn dramatically increased the people’s social and economic needs and demands. For example, Baghdad was likely the largest city in the world from shortly after its foundation until the 320s AH / 930s AC, when it was tied by another Muslim city in Spain (Andalusia), Córdoba. Several estimates suggest that the city contained over a million inhabitants at its peak.[1]Moreover, by 741 AH / 1340 AC, Cairo is believed to have had a population of close to half a million.[2]When Naser Khosraw, a famed 5th AH / 11th AC century traveler from Iran, visited Cairo, he was astonished about the city’s development. About its massive population, he remarked that “there were easily five times the population of Nishapur in Cairo”.[3]There were 50,000 camels only in the city belonging to water carriers.[4]Likewise, the city of Fez in Morocco in the 4th AH / 10th AC century is estimated to have had half a million people, second only to Baghdad. It had 800 mosques.[5]At any rate, almost all medieval Muslim travelers, such as Naser Khosraw, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta, who traversed the Muslim lands in 5th AH / 11th AC, 6th AH / 12th AC and 8th AH / 14th AC respectively, pointed out in relation to most of the medieval Islamic metropolises that they were very densely inhabited and prosperous.

As yet another verification of how much the city of Cairo, for example, might have been both populous and prosperous in the 8th AH / 14th AC century, is Ibn Battuta’s testimonial that in the city, when he visited it in 727 AH / 1326 AC, there were 12,000 water-carriers who transported water on camels for the city’s needs, and 30,000 hirers of mules and donkeys, and that on the Nile there were 36,000 boats which sailed upstream to Upper Egypt and downstream to Alexandria and Damietta, laden with goods and profitable merchandise of all kinds. There was an uninterrupted chain of bazaars from Alexandria to Cairo, and from Cairo to Assuan in Upper Egypt. No wonder then that Ibn Battuta described Cairo as the “mother of cities, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting place of comer and goer.”[6]

Due to the urban population explosion in some major Islamic cities, even some planning and building patterns and strategies in some of those cities had to be reviewed and accordingly adjusted. For example, the city of Baghdad underwent many changes during its early phase of existence. In fact, changes in its circular form started even before the first stage of construction was finished, “although the round city is said to have preserved some of its shape for some years thereafter.”[7]The city’s centralized market with specialized bazaars had to be transferred outside the circular city shortly after its completion. One of the reasons for this was the increasing number of Baghdad’s population. This in turn triggered a host of other social, political, economic and security concerns. In the end, caliph al-Mansur’s attempts to control the city and ensure his personal security and the security of his government officials proved unmanageable. Thus, he, some of his troops, as well as some government agencies, had to move out and abandon the round city altogether. A new official residence complex of the caliph as a result was built in a nearby place outside the city walls.[8]It stands to reason that some problems pertinent to the urbanization and urban growth of the city of Baghdad, coupled with some fast emerging political quandaries in the state, were intensifying over a period of about 75 years following the city’s construction. The situation then culminated in a total abandoning of the city by caliph al-Mu’tasim who built the city of Samarra as a new political capital of the Abbasid state. The city functioned as such for 53 years (222-276 AH / 836-889 AC) following which Baghdad was restored as the state capital.

Certainly, the urban population explosion in Muslim cities, which was coupled with the flourishing of built environment, was the main reason for which the Friday Jumu’ah prayer, which symbolizes the unity, strength and veracity of Islam and its followers, was allowed to be performed in more than one mosque in a city. In a city of a substantial size, performing the Jumu’ah prayer in its main jami’ mosque meant congestion due to which some people had to pray outside the boundaries of mosques, sometimes at seriously doubtful spots which could even invalidate one’s prayer. It follows that the presence of multiple main mosques in cities helped greatly in the finalizing of the decentralization of social, economic, religious and educational institutions in Muslim cities and in their geographical separation from jami’ mosques, existing and functioning then virtually on their own. In the beginning, however, when Muslim cities were much smaller and in their infancy, things were different. Friday Jumu’ah prayers were allowed to be performed only in a city’s main mosque.[9]Although numerous other mosques were allowed to be built and to be operational, and that the five daily prayers be conducted in them, the Jumu’ah prayer on Fridays, however, could not be performed in any of them. That was reserved only for jami’ mosques. Indeed, the best example of this situation was the city of Madinah during the Prophet’s time and the other newly established cities afterward during the leaderships of the four rightly guide caliphs.

It has been reported that during the caliphate of Umar b. al-Khattab after the new cities of Kufah and Basrah in Iraq and Fustat in Egypt had been created, the caliph instructed his governor in Basrah, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, to found a principal mosque (jami’) in the city for the people to congregate, especially on Fridays for the Jumu’ah prayer, and to found other local or neighborhood mosques for different tribes which will function according to the tribal (neighborhood) affiliations. Those tribes (neighborhoods) will utilize their respective local mosques for the five daily prayers. But when Friday comes, they will all have to assemble in the city’s jami’ mosque to perform the Jumu’ah prayer together as a single congregation. A similar message Caliph Umar delivered to Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas and Amr b. al-‘As, his governors in Kufah and Fustat respectively. As for the Sham territories (Syria and Palestine) where the Muslims did not built new cities, but instead availed themselves of the existing advanced urban contexts there, Umar wrote to his representatives not to settle in villages, but to do so in cities instead. In those cities, just like in the cases of Basrah, Kufah and Fustat, jami’ mosques were to be established. Different tribes and neighborhoods were not to found any jami’ mosque. They could have only local tribal or neighborhood mosques for the five daily prayers. The narrator of these caliph Umar’s directives to the provinces concluded his account by saying that the people have duly followed what they had been asked to do.[10]

There is no agreement as to when exactly more than one Jumu’ah prayer were allowed to be performed in one city and who was most responsible for the edict. But as said earlier, that had much to do with the rapid spread of Islam in the conquered territories, people’s thronging to it, and the urban tendencies that Islam somewhat openly advances, which resulted in the emergence of copious, densely inhabited and well developed Islamic urban centers.

At first, more than one Jumu’ah prayer were allowed in the cities which outgrew its original projection and potential. In this case, the population and life activities in those cities had to extend beyond the city walls, gradually creating in the process municipal entities which were bent on securing a qualified level of socio-political, economic and administrative separation and independence from the original “mother” city. Allowing in situations such as this that more than one Jumu’ah prayer be performed is fairly understandable and there was nothing wrong with it. This is because a city which had so many inhabitants that new settlements started emerging, either spontaneously or deliberately, beyond its walls or its other well known and commonly accepted boundaries, has lost some of its geographic and configurational synchronization, unity and logic. As such, it has become more than a single compact city. It has become a mixture of a city and some sprawling and growing in separation and independence suburban settlements and even municipalities. Thus, sanctioning more than one Jumu’ah prayer in more than one mosque under these circumstances was merely an adequate response to a swelling communal planning and development issue and difficulty which needed an open-minded and sensible approach and solution. In fact, that was not regarded at all as an issue of having more than one Jumu’ah prayer in a city. The city proper still had only one Jumu’ah prayer in its main mosque (jami’). Other Jumu’ah prayers, on the other hand, were conducted in the mosques which were built to cater to the pressing needs of the people living in those new sprawling and semi-independent suburban settlements and municipalities.

An example of this trend were the Baghdad and Damascus cities. We have mentioned earlier how the life and morphology of the city of Baghdad was changing during the early phases of its existence, so much so that caliph al-Mansur, the builder and creator of the city, some of his troops, as well as some government bodies and agencies, had to move out and abandon the round and walled city altogether. Although some surrounding neighborhoods started to flourish even before the construction of the round city of Baghdad was completed, the caliph’s relocation from the inside to the outside of the city, undoubtedly, gave an impetus to those neighborhoods, as well as to some new ones, to thrive to a point where they became equivalent in importance to the round and walled city. Later, as Nezar al-Sayyad infers, it became clear that the round and walled Baghdad city was no longer a city on its own, but simply a neighborhood in greater Baghdad.[11]The city of Baghdad thus evolved as an amalgamation of more than a few sizeable and equal in cultural and civilizational importance settlements.

While dwelling on some of the new neighborhoods or settlements outside the walled city of Baghdad, Nezar al-Sayyed further wrote that “it is interesting to note here that al-Mansur also built two mosques in each of these two developing suburbs of the city: the Karkh, which accommodated the markets on the south, and al-Rusafah, which accommodated the troops and al-Mahdi’s (al-Mansur’s son who succeeded him as the caliph) palace to the northeast. In doing so the caliph was making it more convenient for the residents of those sections to have their Friday prayers close by, and he was also ensuring a lesser crowd and probably a more manageable situation in his central mosque.”[12]

When Ibn Battuta visited Baghdad in the middle of 8th AH / 14th AC century, he reported in his travel memoirs that the city, both inside and outside its walls, had eleven Jumu’ah or Friday mosques, “eight on the right bank (of the Tigris river) and three on the left, together with very many other mosques”.[13]In the middle of the 5th AH / 11th AC century, there were only six Friday mosques in Baghdad, but hundreds of what could be called simple neighborhood mosques.[14]

On account of Baghdad having been the seat and symbol of the Abbasid caliphate, the caliph’s authorization was needed in order to designate a mosque in the city as a jami’ or a Friday mosque.[15]The same policy might have extended to the rest of the cities in the Islamic state, in which case the governors acted on behalf, or in the name, of the caliph. The following passage regarding a jami’ mosque in the Harbiyyah quarter of Baghdad sheds some light on the matter in question. The passage is cited by George Makdisi from an encyclopedia of Islamic history entitled al-Muntazam fi Tarikh al-Muluk wa al-Umam written by Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597 AH / 1200 AC). In it, it has been reported as follows: “Al-Hashimi had built a masjid in the Harbiyyah quarter in the caliphate of Muti’ biAllah (ruled 334-363 AH / 946-974 AC) with the intention of making it into a jami’ in which the khutbah (sermon) is delivered. The caliph Muti’ did not give his authorization for it, and the masjid remained as such until the accession of the caliph al-Qadir biAllah (ruled 381-422 AH / 991-1031 AC), who asked the jurisconsults for their legal opinions regarding the matter. Their consensus passed favorably on the legitimacy of the jami’ there. Whereupon the caliph gave orders for it to be renovated, furnished for the purpose, and outfitted with a minbar (a pulpit for delivering Friday sermons of khutbahs) and he appointed an imam to lead the Friday prayers in it. This took place in the month of Rabi’ al-Thani in the year 383 AH (May-June, 993).”[16]

As regards Damascus, it too was a walled city. Inside the city proper, the Jumu’ah prayer for centuries was performed only in the central great Umayyad mosque (al-jami’ al-amawiyy). Outside the walls of the city, however, there were a few mosques where the Jumu’ah prayer was allowed to be performed as well, on account of the neighborhoods and settlements outside the walled city having been regarded effectively as independent municipalities. It was only from the year 766 AH / 1364 AC that more than one Jumu’ah prayer was performed inside the walled city of Damascus.[17]When in 766 AH / 1364 AC a second Jumu’ah was added to the one performed in the great Umayyad mosque, Ibn Kathir, a leading commentator of the Qur’an and a historian (d. 775 AH / 1373 AC), was taken aback. He is reported to have said: “That (i.e., praying more than one Jumu’ah prayer inside the walled city of Damascus) has never happened – as far as I know — from the day the city fell into the Muslim hands until now.”[18]

The case of Cairo is also helpful here. If the cities of Baghdad and Damascus were the cities which expanded rapidly to a point where they became a combination of several settlements and municipalities, thus calling for more than one Jumu’ah to be prayed in those settlements and municipalities, the city of Cairo, on the other hand, became a combination of a few cities all of which, as they were independently planned and built, had their respective focal points and jami’ mosques, thus also calling for more than one Jumu’ah prayer to be prayed in it – or in them. Those cities, while subsequently making up the great city of Cairo, were regarded as the latter’s suburbs or municipalities. Here too the issue was not regarded at all as one of having more than one Jumu’ah prayer in a single city. As a matter of fact, each city, or municipality, of Cairo, still had only one Jumu’ah prayer in its main mosque (jami’). Sanctioning more than one Jumu’ah prayer in more than one mosque under these circumstances was merely an adequate and pragmatic response to a pressing planning and development dilemma which needed an open-minded approach and a reasonable solution. Allowing that more than one Jumu’ah prayer be performed in a situation like this is fairly understandable and there was nothing wrong with it.

When the Muslims arrived in Egypt in 21 AH / 641 AC, they established their own capital, al-Fustat, on the eastern side of the Nile. The city’s jami’ mosque, the mosque of Amr b. al-‘As, the conqueror of Egypt, was also established. It was the only jami’ in the city and, as such, the Jumu’ah prayer was conducted only in it.

However, following the demise of the Umayyads and the arrival of the Abbasids on the Muslim political scene, the capital city in Egypt was shifted from al-Fustat slightly north where a new capital called al-‘Askar was built. The city was intended primarily to be large enough to house an army.In the new city’s jami’ mosque, the Jumu’ah prayer was performed, while retaining the jami’ of al-Fustat and its Jumu’ah as well. Henceforth, two Jumu’ah prayers were performed, one in the jami’ of the al-Fustat city and the other in the jami’ of the new neighboring city of al-‘Askar.[19]

Furthermore, when in 257 AH / 870 AC Ahmad b. Tulun declared Egypt’s independence — though still nominally under the rule of the Abbasids in Baghdad, Iraq — he founded yet another capital in Egypt, al-Qatai’, slightly further north of al-‘Askar.In the new Egypt capital, a new jami’ mosque was also built, the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun. Expectedly, in it the Jumu’ah prayer was performed. While the Jumu’ah in the jami’ of the al-Fustat city, the mosque of Amr b. al-‘As, was maintained after the establishment of al-Qatai’, such was not the case with the jami’ of the city of al-‘Askar. The Jumu’ah prayer was discontinued there which resulted in the status and importance of the city of al-‘Askar and its jami’ to gradually fade away. Henceforth till the arrival of the Fatimids, two Jumu’ah prayers were still performed, one in the jami’ of the al-Fustat city and the other in the jami’ of the nearby new city of al-Qatai’.[20]

When the Shiite Fatimids arrived in Egypt, they too in 359 AH / 969 AC established their own capital city called al-Qahirah, or Cairo. It had a jami’ mosque called al-jami’ al-azhar in which the Jumu’ah prayer was conducted. In the cities of al-Fustat, al-Qatai’ and al-‘Askar the status quo was maintained. Hence, following the creation of Cairo, the Jumu’ah prayer was conducted in three jami’ mosques representing two former and one current capital city of Egypt: the jami’ of al-Fustat, the jami’ of al-Qatai’ and the al-jami’ al-azhar of Fatimid Cairo.[21]As the four neighboring cities grew, their original boundaries were becoming more and more indistinct. They eventually merged and became one city, the great city of Cairo, with the former capital cities of al-Fustat, al-‘Askar and al-Qatai’ forming some of the city’s greatest and most important districts.

Later, however, when the huge mosque of a Fatimid ruler al-Hakim bi Amr Allah (d. 411 AH / 1020 AC), the mosque of al-Hakim, was built inside Fatimid Cairo, the Jumu’ah prayer was conducted in it together with the al-jami’ al-azhar. It was then that for the first time in the history of Islam two Jumu’ah prayers were conducted in a single city, an abhorrent invention which was concocted by the Shiite Fatimids inside their Egyptian capital city, Cairo. According to al-Maqrizi, the Jumu’ah prayer might have been conducted in as many as four mosques inside Fatimid Cairo during the Fatimid reign. Such remained the case until the Fatimids were ousted in Egypt by the Sunni Ayyubids in 567 AH / 1171 AC. As a sign of the Sunni victory over the Shiite Fatimids, the innovation of having multiple Jumu’ah prayers inside what once was Fatimid Cairo was done away with. The Jumu’ah prayer, henceforth, was performed only in the jami’ mosque of al-Hakim.[22]

When Naser Khosraw, a famed 5th AH / 11th AC century traveler from Iran, visited Cairo, the city and its Shiite benefactors, the Fatimids, were at their prime. He also, like the historian al-Maqrizi about four centuries later, remarked that inside Fatimid Cairo – or inside the new Cairo, as per Naser’s terminology – there were four mosques wherein Jumu’ah prayers had been conducted.[23]But Naser went a step further and added that in the whole of Cairo, which included the old city with the al-Fustat, al-‘Askar and al-Qatai’ sectors, as well as new Fatimid Cairo, there were at least twelve, and at most fifteen, Jumu’ah or Friday mosques.[24]It stands to reason, however, that as a noble act of battling the Shiite deviational precepts and practices, while at the same time promoting the Sunni orthodoxy, no sooner had the Ayyubids deposed the Fatimids than in many of those mosques the Jumu’ah prayer was rescinded.

Only in the jami’ of al-Hakam the Jumu’ah was conducted in Fatimid Cairo following the overthrowing of the Fatimids until the year 665 AH / 1266 AC when another Jumu’ah prayer started to be performed in the al-jami’ al-azhar.[25]By then, Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks during whose time the level of the urbanization and general development of Cairo, coupled with the city’s rapid population growth, was unprecedented. As a small digression, it must be mentioned at this juncture that during the early rule of the Mamluks, the city of Cairo was flooded with refuges from the Muslim east which had been overrun and devastated by the Mongols,[26]the catastrophe culminating in the razing and pillaging of the capital city of the Abbasid caliphate, Baghdad, in 656 AH / 1258 AC. All this, in addition to the Mamluks’ somewhat feeble and permissive outlook towards the notion of one-city, or one-settlement, one-Jumu’ah prayer, contributed to the official inauguration of the idea of multiple Jumu’ah prayers in a single but relatively big city or a settlement. Once the scholars endorsed the idea — albeit never unanimously and straightforwardly — there was no turning back for the matter in question, not only in Cairo, but also in every other center of Islamic culture and civilization. And later when the Ottoman Turks took over the leadership of much of the Muslim world, they embraced and further cemented the culture of one-city, or one-settlement, many-Jumu’ah-mosques. Most important mosques that were constructed at that time and onwards were instantly fixed with minbars or pulpits, thus indicating that Jumu’ah prayers can and will be conducted in them. Thus, according to al-Maqrizi (d. 845 AH / 1441 AC), during his time when the Mamluk power was at its zenith, the number of mosques in Cairo with all of its suburbs wherein the Jumu’ah prayer was performed, stood at 130.[27]There were also thousands of smaller mosques scattered throughout the great Cairo wherein only five daily prayers were performed.[28]

 Accordingly, it was mainly due to the rapid urbanization in the Islamic cities, which caused an urban population explosion, that a full institutionalization of the mosque’s diversified roles and functions, and that the partial decentralization of the same institutions, occurred, accommodating the swelling demands of the rapidly expanding community and its global cultural and civilizational outlook.


[1] Baghdad,

[2] Cairo, Matt T. Rosenberg, Largest Cities Through History,

[3] Naser Khosraw, Book of Travels, translated from Persian by W. M. Thackston, Jr., (Albany: Bibliotheca Persica, 1986), p. 56.

[4] Ibid., p. 46.

[5] Al-Hasan al-Sa’ih, Al-Hadarah al-Islamiyyah fi al-Maghrib, (Casablanca: Dar al-Thaqafah, 1986), p. 168.

[6] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, Translated and selected by H. A. R. Gibb, (London: Darf Publishers LTD, 1983), p. 50.

[7] Nezar al-Sayyad, Cities and Caliphs, p. 126.

[8] Ibid., p. 128-132.

[9] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar Uthman, Al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, (Kuwait: ‘Alam al-Ma’rifah, 1988), p. 113.

[10] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1998), vol. 4 p. 5.

[11] Nezar al-Sayyad, Cities and Caliphs, p. 132.

[12] Ibid., p. 130.

[13] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, p. 99.

[14] George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p. 13.

[15] Ibid., p. 13.

[16] Ibid., p. 13.

[17] Taha al-Waliyy, Al-Masajid fi al-Islam, p. 146.

[18] Ibid., p. 146.

[19] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, vol. 4 p. 3.

[20] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 3.

[21] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 3.

[22] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 3. Taha al-Waliyy, Al-Masajid fi al-Islam, p. 145.

[23] Naser Khosraw, Book of Travels, p. 47.

[24] Ibid., p. 52.

[25] Taha al-Waliyy, Al-Masajid fi al-Islam, p. 146. Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, vol. 4 p. 3.

[26] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, vol. 2 p. 210.

[27] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 3.

[28] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 149.

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