Malise Ruthven

From Cordoba to Kabul

Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization


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On the face of it, Islamic Empires is an odd title for a book about Islamic cities. Although Islam may be defined as an urban religion conceived in a pastoral milieu, the relationship between Islamic cities and their imperial extensions is a problematic one given the perennially tribal nature of Islamic societies. Unlike their European counterparts, Islamic cities were more like conglomerations of villages, short of urban-style patriotism. As the great North African savant Ibn Khaldun, widely regarded as the first social scientist and frequently cited by Justin Marozzi here, pointed out in his masterpiece, the Muqaddima, Islamic cities have been vulnerable to takeover by hardy tribal groups from the hinterlands.

Marozzi is surely correct, however, in stating that by the middle of the 11th century, when barbarian hordes from the West invaded Jerusalem, the centre of the cosmos on medieval maps,

the Muslim world bowed to no other faith, nor any other region on earth, when it came to the sophistication of its civilization … Civilization was by definition an urban phenomenon, and no one did cities quite like the Muslims. While Islamic cities encompassed growing populations in the hundreds of thousands, their Christian counterparts muddled along with tens of thousands living in rather less style and considerably less splendour. Only a handful of European cities might have intruded on Muslim consciousness at this time … If medieval Europe was inching towards urban life, the Muslim world was galloping through it at full tilt.

Marozzi eloquently explains just what multicultural cities such as Baghdad, Fez, Samarkand and Jerusalem were like during this golden period:

The Islamic city was, above all, diverse and cosmopolitan, teeming with Muslims, Jews and Christians of various persuasions. In crowded streets and thriving markets bursting with products from all corners of the world, Arabs and Kurds shared streets with Turks and Persians, Greeks and Slavs with Africans, freemen with slaves. The magnetic attraction of the cities of the Muslim world was proof positive of Islam’s imperial, cultural and economic success. If Muslims gave the barbaric, sun-starved denizens of Europe’s muddy, provincial backwaters a second thought, it was only with a shudder.

In this highly readable book, he takes his readers on a whistle-stop tour of fifteen cities he regards as defining Islamic civilisation, contrasting the nodal points in their historical formation with their current conditions. His aim is to show how ‘a thousand years ago Islamic civilization bestrode the world’ with cities stretching from Kabul to Cordoba. These cities offered ‘an exhilarating combination of military might, artistic grandeur, commercial power and spiritual sanctity’, and were also ‘power-houses of forward-looking thinking in science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, cartography calligraphy, history, geography, law, music, theology, jurisprudence and philosophy, each metropolis a superbly humming engine room of innovation and discovery’. This is a hugely ambitious project, and its execution is sometimes patchy, with passages on some cities reading more like entries from a Lonely Planet guidebook than the result of research and personal experience, a combination that served him so well in his masterly Baghdad (2014). The weakest chapter is the one on Mecca, which, as a non-Muslim, he evidently has not visited. The chapter on Baghdad also disappoints, not least because he has set the bar so high in his previous book about the city.

However, with Cairo, the ‘City Victorious’, founded in 969 by the Ismaili Shiite Fatimid caliphs from what is now Algeria, his book really comes to life. The period he chooses to focus on is the high point in the city’s history, beginning in 972 when the fourth Fatimid caliph, Muizz, made his triumphant entry into what was then Misr al-Fustat, the City of Tents, in a procession led by elephants and three coffins containing the remains of his predecessors. As well as founding al-Azhar University, the Fatimids created the Dar al Hikma, the House of Wisdom, an important centre for the study of medicine, astronomy and religion. The institution was open to people from all walks of life: ‘Serious scholars and amateur bookworms alike were entitled to read and copy the books, making use of free ink, writing reeds, paper and inkstands.’ Foremost among the scholars to have worked there was Ibn Haytham, the father of optics and a pioneering theoretical physicist, born six centuries before Isaac Newton.

The Muslim world at this time displayed what might be called an attitude of religious and cultural superiority that contrasts markedly with the sense of crisis that overtook it in the age of European empires. Intellectuals such as the tenth-century historian Masudi saw Europeans as uncivilised barbarians: ‘their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull, and their tongues heavy’. A Muslim judge in Toledo saw them as closer to animals than humans, pale-skinned corpulent creatures who lacked ‘keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence and are overcome by ignorance and apathy, lack of discernment and stupidity’.

Why, one is bound to ask, did civilisational greatness epitomised by the Fatimids collapse before the onslaught of European barbarians? In many respects the tragedy of Egypt epitomises that which befell most of the Muslim world long before the European conquests of the 18th and 19th centuries. In ninth-century Baghdad, the enlightened, rationalist theology promoted by the caliph al-Mamun was resisted by Ahmed ibn Hanbal (a forerunner of the Wahhabist fanatics who created Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century), who promoted a kind of anti-intellectual populism, and the counter-rationalism of Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari, who famously insisted that cotton only burns because God allows it, rather than as a consequence of natural laws.

In 1171, the Kurdish adventurer Saladin – still a hero to many Muslims thanks to his victory against the Crusaders – took power in Egypt and began the process of destroying its brilliant intellectual culture. As Marozzi explains, ‘the lasting victory for orthodox Sunni Islam, ousted for two centuries by the Fatimids, was imposed at the cost of the freewheeling intellectual spirit that had animated Cairo for so long. It was a case of more religion, less philosophy, and the scholarly compass narrowed accordingly.’ In the words of Abdul Rahman Azzam, a modern biographer of Saladin, ‘Debate about the correct Islamic manner of washing, or eating, or over questions like whether a woman need perform ritual ablutions after a visitation by djinns, replaced philosophical conjecture and scientific invention.’ That style of Islam still prevails in many circles, thanks in large part to petrodollar patronage.

Marozzi concludes his book with graphic descriptions of two cities that have risen to prominence in the modern age, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Doha, capital of Qatar. Both were ancient ports and centres of pearling, but now display forests of skyscrapers, irrigated by fossil fuels. Despite some restrictions on academic freedom, Doha’s Education City – a grove of university campuses transplanted from the West – offers some hope for the future while al-Azhar languishes in the intellectual doldrums of state-imposed Asharite theology. It is a pity that in his conclusion to his chapter on Doha, Marozzi fails to mention this impressive development, driven by the remarkable Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, wife of the former emir and mother of the present ruler.

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