Institutional Decentralization in the History of Islamic Cities: The Relationship between the Mosque and other Institutions

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

Ahmet Mosque In Turkey

In the new phase of the mosque’s existence, which was marked by a partial institutional decentralization, there came about three patterns in the mosque’s relationship with the newly modeled social, political, educational and religious institutions. Those three patterns were as follows.



The main mosque (jami’) stood alone, or with a few institutions attached to it, or standing nearby, while other institutions were separated and scattered individually throughout a city. The institutions which had most a propensity for breaking away from the mosque institution, by and large, were madrasahs (schools or colleges), hospitals or bimaristans, caravanserais (khans or inns), detention centers, places for recreation, khanqahs or hospices for Sufis and students in general, etc.

This was the most common pattern of the mosque’s relationship with the other institutions. The place of the mosque in a city was always known, i.e., in the middle, all the roads, as well as the people’s attention and interests, leading and being directed towards it. The places of the institutions separated from the mosque were neither fixed or recognizable, nor predictable, though. But they could not be planned systematically and much ahead either, because nearly all major Islamic cities had been planned and built long before the institutional decentralization has occurred. Under the circumstances, therefore, to try to reconsider in low-rise high-density Islamic cities just a few planning aspects, or to carry out any significant urbanization adjustments, in order to accommodate the spread of some new social institutions, must have been a formidable task for the rulers and decision makers. Nonetheless, the new institutions’ settings and sites in cities were generally determined by the availability of spaces, the socio-political and economic prospects of a city, as well as by some special requirements entailed in each and every institution. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are institutions which in terms of urban planning and development were perfectly placed, but there are also those which seem to have followed very little urban planning logic. For the most part, the new institutions had to subject and attune themselves to the existing urbanization conventions and practices, rather than to attempt to influence or modify them. Indeed, a considerable amount of time was needed for the new institutions to become integral to, and part and parcel of, the Islamic urban planning and development systems and designs.

Thus, Islamic cities abounded with socio-political, religious and educational institutions which dotted their landscapes from the city centers to their peripheries and even villages. For example, Ibn Battuta remarked about Damascus that the people there “vie with one another in building mosques, religious houses, colleges and mausoleums”. About Baghdad, he said that its mosques, madrasahs and baths were numerous. And about madrasahs in Cairo, he just commented that they cannot be counted for multitude. Ibn Battuta arrived in Cairo from Alexandria observing that “the traveler on the Nile need take no provision with him, because whenever he desires to descend on the bank he may do so, for ablutions, prayers, provisioning, or any other purpose. There is an uninterrupted chain of bazaars from Alexandria to Cairo, and from Cairo to Assuan in Upper Egypt.”[1]

Likewise, Ibn Jubayr reported that he had witnessed in Damascus, apart from numerous mosques, 20 madrasahs, almost 100 public baths, numerous khanqahs and two hospitals, all finely built and excellently maintained. In Baghdad, furthermore, he saw 30 madrasahs with munificent endowments and vast properties meant for their self- subsistence, public baths which could not be counted but their number was estimated at approximately several thousands, mosques which could not be counted either, and many hospitals.[2]

Al-Maqrizi also wrote, relying on an apparently exaggerated account though, that in the year 539 AH / 1144 AC al-Fustat in Cairo alone had 36,000 mosques, 1,170 public baths, and 8000 streets.[3]In his classic work entitled al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, al-Maqrizi (d. 845 AH / 1441 AC) enumerated and discussed hundreds of socio-political, educational and religious institutions and establishments in Cairo which were available during his time.

The institutions which were most far-flung from cities’ midpoints where jami’ mosques stood were detention centers and recreational meeting places. During the Mamluki reign in Cairo, for example, there was a piazza outside the city which served the purposes of mass recreation but mainly by the members of the ruling family and other notables. The most widely practiced pastimes were horse riding, archery, spear throwing and hunting.[4]There were many other forms of recreation practiced in more private and secluded environments, like the palace complexes for the ruling elites, and homes and a very limited number of city open spaces for the public. Moreover, the locations and functions of several Mamluki prisons situated on the fringe of the city, often on a hill, were reported.[5]



The second pattern of the mosque’s relationship with the other institutions was that the main mosque stood alone, or with a few institutions attached to it, or standing nearby, while some other institutions clustered around each other away from the mosque, thus forming new separate community centers or thrusts. The institutions which had most a propensity to break away from the mosque institution and then form separate community centers, by and large, were madrasahs, hospitals and khanqahs. It must be admitted that not all multi-institutional clusters were able to acquire the reputation of community centers. However, since they were multi-functional in character, most of them managed to play some significant roles in society, attracting thereby people’s considerable attention and consideration.

For example, the Mamluki Sultan Qalawun (d. 689 AH / 1290 AC) built what came to be known in history as the Qalawun complex. It was a massive complex that included a hospital, a madrasah, a mosque and a mausoleum. The hospital was “the greatest of its time. It had an endowment which yielded about a million dirhams annually. Both male and female attendants were employed in it. Within a spacious quadrangular enclosure four high walls were raised in cruciform round a pillared courtyard with the inbuilt system of keeping it cooled with fountains and brooks. Of the four walls, one was set apart for the hospital staff, and the other three for the patients.”[6]

Sultan Qalawun is said to have received inspiration for the creation of this hospital (complex) from the impressive al-Nuri hospital in Damascus, founded in 549 AH / 1154 AC, where he once was admitted as a patient with colic pain. He vowed to establish a similar institution in Cairo in the event of his recovery.[7]According to Abdul Ali, the entire art of that age was employed in the Qalawun hospital complex to make the stay of the patients there comfortable, pleasant and cheerful.[8]Having been meant to be, above all, an educational, charitable and welfare center, the Qalawun hospital complex served certain interests of orphans as well. It was both one of the largest and one of the most long serving endowments in the Muslim world. Although it had its ups and down in history, the hospital complex was in some use till the early 20th century.[9]

Ibn Battuta wrote about this hospital complex: “As for the maristan or hospital which lies “between the two castles” near the mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun, no description is adequate to its beauties. It contains an innumerable quantity of appliances and medicaments, and its daily revenue is put as high as a thousand dinars.”[10]

There was another notable multi-institutional hospital in Cairo, which was founded in 577 AH / 1182 AC, about a century before Sultan Qalawun, by the Ayyubid Sultan Salahuddin al-Ayyubi. A palace near the al-Azhar mosque belonging to the Shiite Fatimids, who had been dethroned by the Ayyubids, was transformed into a hospital. It provided food and medications, day and night, to the sick.[11]

The Mamluks were very fond of building khanqah, madrasah and funerary complexes especially in Egypt and to some extent in Palestine and Syria, that were multi-institutional and multi-functional. If one visits the lands once controlled by the Mamluks, especially Cairo, one cannot fail to be struck by the volume, range and artistic elegance of such complexes.

Furthermore, a hint at some madrasah and khanqah complexes and how they functioned was given by Ibn Battuta. He said that he had traveled through a land in Iraq that was controlled most probably by an Atabeg Sultan of Turkish origins. He said: “For ten days we continued to travel in the territories of this Sultan amidst high mountains, halting every night at a madrasah, where each traveler was supplied with food for himself and forage for his beast. Some of the madrasahs are in desolate localities, but all their requirements are transported to them. One-third of the revenues of the state is devoted to the maintenance of these hospices and madrasahs.”[12]

It stands to reason, therefore, that within their varied capacities, some madrasahs as part of their endowment schemes were able to provide free accommodation not only for their employees and students, but also for the underprivileged and travelers. The same is true of the khanqah, the Sufi educational and welfare institution which every so often must have enjoyed a widespread appeal. On that score, Adam Sabra asserts that Cairo’s many khanqahs provided lodging for the pious poor, including the families of many Sufis. “Were it not for the existence of these institutions many Sufis would not have been able to pursue worship on a full-time basis or travel from city to city in search of knowledge. In addition, there is reason to believe that these institutions provided comfort to some non-Sufis as well.”[13]

As an institution frequently with a versatile character, purpose and functions, the madrasah over time developed several variations, the most important ones of which, as per George Makdisi, were: (1) the double madrasah (serving two madhhabs); (2) the triple madrasah (serving three madhhabs); (3) the quadruple madrasah (serving all four madhhabs); (4) the madrasah with a masjid or a mosque; (5) the madrasah with a jami’ mosque; (6) the madrasah with a dar al-hadith (a house as another educational institutions for studying the Prophet’s traditions); (7) the madrasah with a turbah (mausoleum); (8) the madrasah with a dar al-hadith and a turbah; (9) the madrasah with a khanqah (a place and institution for the spiritual retreat and character reformation of Sufis); (10) the madrasah with a ribat (another Sufi institution); (11) the madrasah with a maristan (hospital); (12) the madrasah-medical school; (13) the madrasahzawiyah (yet another Sufi institution).[14]

Besides a great many madrasahs, khanqahs and even hospitals which functioned partially as welfare centers as well, there was another welfare and educational institution which was dedicated to the education of, and looking after, orphans and poor children. It was established perhaps as early as in the 6th AH / 12th AC century. It was called maktab. Maktabs were private schools with generous endowments meant to provide a basic education to orphans and to the children whose families could not pay for it. This charitable educational institution was also called maktab al-sabil because it was often built over a cistern (al-sabil) which provided water to the public.[15]It is believed that the first waqf (endowment) in Cairo to educate orphans and poor children is attributed to Salahuddin al-Ayyubi. After him, many Mamluki and Ottoman patrons did endow maktabs. A Mamluki Sultan “al-Zahir Baybars founded a maktab al-sabil next to his madrasah in Bayn al-Qasrayn, as did Qansuh al-Ghawri and numerous other rulers in between. In addition some amirs, such as Sighritmish, and some members of the civilian elite such as Taj al-Din b. Hanna built maktabs as well.”[16]According to some estimates, around 47 maktabs were established in Mamluki Cairo.[17]

The Abbasid Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) could also be given as an example of a community thrust, or a center, which functioned independently away from the immediate sway of the mosque. As we have seen earlier, the Bayt al-Hikmah was a multi-institutional scientific and research complex. It had translation, teaching and research centers, laboratories, a library, an observatory, and lodging. It was an academic haven for both scholars and students. It thus served as a great contributor to the class and flourishing of Islamic culture and civilization. It gave many people a sense of pride which knew no bounds.

Finally, the palace was also growing as an increasingly isolated and inaccessible complex which was progressively functioning autonomously away from the immediate influence, or supervision, of the mosque. Moreover, the two worlds, the palace and the mosque, increasingly grew apart as the falling-out between the scholars and the rulers worsened. This issue, however, will be discussed later in the context of a separate topic entitled “the rift between the scholars and the rulers”.



The third pattern of the mosque’s relationship with the other institutions was that the main mosques at the midpoints in cities were surrounded by a majority of social and educational institutions, thus forming huge, vast and bustling city centers containing the largest part of the cities’ institutions which were dominated by principal mosques. Although several institutions managed to branch out from the main jami’ mosques, that, however, was due to expediency rather than guiding principles. One gets a feeling that only those institutions which could not function properly and could not be sustained in the vast and congested city centers, and also those which did not serve the interests of all people, were reluctantly let go away from the main mosques.

Some good examples of this pattern of the mosque’s relationship with other urban institutions are found in territories once controlled by the Ottoman Turks, especially in Turkey, the Balkan region and the Middle East. For example, when Sultan Fatih (d. 886 AH /1481 AC) build his great jami’ mosque in Istanbul, there were eight madrasahs around it where 600 students studied each day. As part of the mosque complex, there were also a children’s school, a library, two hostels for travelers, a refectory, kitchens where the poor were given food, and a hospital, which employed for their free treatment an eye specialist, a surgeon, a pharmacist, and cooks to prepare food under the doctor’s orders.[18]Later, some mausoleums, including that of Sultan Fatih, were added to the complex.

Another example is the great jami’ complex of Sultan Suleyman (974 AH / 1566 AC) in Istanbul, also called Suleymaniye complex. The enormous mosque with its adjacent structures was meant from the very beginning to service both religious and cultural needs. The jami’ complex consisted of the mosque itself, a hospital, a primary school, public baths(hamam), a caravanserai, a hostel for the poor and travelers, four madrasahs, a specialized school for the learning of hadith, a medical college, and a public kitchen (imaret) which served food to the poor. Later, some mausoleums, including that of Sultan Suleyman and those belonging to a number of his family members, were added to the complex. All in all, the Suleymaniye complex is composed of 15 sections.[19]



[1]Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, Translated and selected by H. A. R. Gibb, (London: Darf Publishers LTD, 1983), p. 50, 70, 99.

[2] Ibn Jubayr, Rihlah Ibn Jubayr, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), p. 179, 220, 225.

[3] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa’iz wa al-I’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa al-Athar, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1998), vol. 2 p. 149.

[4] Ali Ibrahim Hasan, Tarikh al-Mamalik al-Bahriyyah, (Cairo: Maktabah al-Nahdah al-Misriyyah, 1967), p. 476.

[5] Ibid., p. 402.

[6] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, (New Delhi: MD Publications PVT LTD, 1996), p. 69.

[7] Ibid., p. 69.

[8] Ibid., p. 70.

[9] Adam Sabra, Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p. 73-75.

[10] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, p. 50.

[11] Adam Sabra, Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam, p. 74.

[12] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, p. 90.

[13] Adam Sabra, Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam, p. 84.

[14] George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p. 34.

[15] Adam Sabra, Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam, p. 81.

[16] Ibid., p. 81.

[17] Ibid., p. 82.

[18] Mehmet Maksudoglu, Osmanli History, 1289-1922, (Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia, 1999), p. 88, 89.

[19]Hafiz Huseyin al-Ayvansarayi, The Garden of the Mosques, translated by Howard Crane, (Leiden: Brill, 2000), p, 19. Suleymaniye Complex, Mosque,

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