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The concept of “Islamic city” is among the most controversial topics in the contemporary urban studies. The three given articles analyze and assess this concept. J.L. Abu-Lughod considers the concept of “Islamic city” inconsistent with reality and claims that it is social, political, and natural factors, not religious ones, that shape a city. K. Adham states that the “Islamization” of the architecture is a result of capitalism, and for M.M. Sakr it is an outcome of globalization. I agree with R. Alissa, according to whom “Islamic” architecture is affected by the Western gaze, but I recognize the benefits of the “Islamization” of architecture.
Summarizing the Articles
The three articles offered for analysis, “The Islamic City – Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance” by Janet L. Abu-Lughod, “The Theming of Arabia: Cultural Capitalism and the Re-Invention of Tradition in the Persian Gulf” by Khaled Adham, and “Creating the ‘Arabian’ Architectural Style” by Mamdouh Mohamed Sakr are discussing the topic of the “Islamic city” idea and its relevance to the today’s Islamic world.
In her article, Janet L. Abu-Lughod, an eminent American sociologist, emphasizes the influence of Western literature on the modern Orientalist trend in architecture (Abu-Lughod, 1987, p. 155). She criticizes the assumptions of the supporters of the “Islamic city” concept and proves them irrelevant. In particular, the mentions the following assumptions: Islam is an urban religion; Islamic cities are founded by new powers or dynasties; Islamic cities have a congregational Friday mosque and a bazaar; they are divided into resident and non-resident zones. As Abu-Lughod states, all of the assumptions relate only to North African cities and ignore the social organization of the cities (Abu-Lughod, 1987, p. 136-137). As a conclusion, the author claims that cities are shaped more by environmental and political factors than by religious ones (Abu-Lughod, 1987, p. 172).
Khaled Adham defines the Arabic trend in city architecture as a form of “cultural capitalism” (Adham, 2008, p. 10-11), i.e. an architectural fashion shaped by economic reality. “The re-invention of heritage,” Adham says, is performed to attract tourists and business partners (Adham, 2008, p. 13). The author offers Dubai and Souk Waquif in Doha as examples of bringing the old traditions back in a somewhat different form and the commercialization of cultural heritage. In a conclusion, Adham mentions that, for cities, “Arabic” style is a way to survive and cope with the conditions of the global capitalist economy. Additionally, such architectural shaping attracts not only tourist but important entrepreneurs as well (Adham, 2008, p. 15).
Mamdouh Mohamed Sakr, on the example of Dubai, studies the identity of a “global city” and its relevance to the popularity of “Arabic style.” He thoroughly examines the historical background of Dubai, its initial architecture, the building materials used, the customs, and environmental conditions such as climate. Then, he speaks about the unusually rapid urbanization of Dubai and points out that, within globalization, the city has lost its identity (Sakr, 2008, p. 148-149). The loss of identity, Sakr claims, led to a crisis in its architectural specificity since the architecture was affected by globalization as well (Sakr, 2008, p. 149-150). In general, Sakr approves of the attempts to revive Arabic style, naming them a successful implementation of both aesthetic values and economic purposes (Sakr, 2008, p. 157).
The Concept of “Islamic City”
All the three above-mentioned authors recognize the existence of the concept of “Islamic city,” but assess it differently. To my understanding, while Abu-Lughod does not believe that this concept has any relation to reality and considers social, political, and environmental factors prevailing over religion, Sakr and Adham do not make such claims. All the scholars emphasize the importance of social and environmental factors shaping a city, while Sakr, additionally, is interested in its historical process of development. Unlike Adham, Abu-Lughod and Sakr study Arabic cities outside the Gulf (India, North Africa) to make comparisons. Abu-Lughod also mentions the gender component (“sexual segregation”) of the social conditions forming a city (Abu-Lughod, 1987, p. 172).
Abu-Lughod seeks to “deconstruct” the notion of “Islamic city” (Abu-Lughod, 1987, p. 172) while Sakr does not consider that it needs deconstruction. To him, this concept rather needs explanation through the problem of globalization. Similarly, Adham analyzes it as an outcome of capitalization. Among the three authors, Sakr is the only one to address the issue of a city’s identity (including its architectural component), its alterations, and its possible loss. Apart from that, he is the only one to emphasize some positive results of the commercialization of a Gulf city’s architectural image.
The debate over “Islamic city” has been and is going on. Some scholars point out that, since Arab Muslims usually settled in already existing cities or even at villages at the beginning of their history, they could not create a pattern of their own city architecture, and they could not associate cities with Islam. The features of the cities that became Islamic, hence, are inherited from previous inhabitants. Some archeologists are sure that Arabic cities strongly resemble Roman ones in planning and architecture, mentioning the medina of Maghreb (Tunisia) as an example. This is not surprising, considering the fact that a lot of Roman and Hellenistic cities of North Africa and the Middle East lived to be Arabic (Islamic).
Those scholars, who support the idea of “Islamic city,” usually name the following significant features: the main mosque, markets, a citadel (the residence of the governor), residential quarters (cluster of people, who maintain strong ties), specific street planning (narrow private and semi-private streets connecting residential headquarters with other places), a defended wall surrounding the city, separated cemeteries for the representatives of different religions outside the wall, and an animal market, also outside the wall (Saoud, 2001, par. 13-22).
The Critique by Reem Alissa
As it can be seen, the concept of “Islamic city,” though is very popular, is criticized by prominent scholars as a commercial enterprise. Reem Alissa, a contemporary architect, urban designer, and historian, criticizes the whole idea of “Islamic architecture,” marking it as something that emerged from the Westerners, who simplified the traditions of the East, and then, in an objectified form, returned back to the Easterners and managed to become an architectural style (Alissa, 2012, p. 113).
Surely, the trend that Alissa describes is well-represented in the countries of the Gulf. One of the most bright examples is Dubai. It is an ancient city, and in pre-oil times it was a town, which Europeans perceived as a typical Arabic one: with the fishing industry, a bazaar, a Friday mosque, and, finally, traditional architecture. In post-colonial times (however, the start of this process can be traced back to the 18th century), Eastern traditions, including architecture, were imported to the West. In medieval times Islamic architecture had a strong influence on Spanish and Portuguese traditions, but it became fashion in later times. After Napoleon’s expedition to the East, due to the fact that he took scholars with the army, the Eastern cultural traditions, including architecture, were introduced to Europe as “Orientalist traditions” and became a trend (Petersen, 2002, p. 90). In the West, Islamic architectural traditions became unified, i.e. Westerners saw “Oriental traditions” as something integral and made no distinction between, for instance, North African Islamic traditions and Indo-Chinese Islamic traditions).
In other words, the Westerners appropriated and transformed the Eastern architectural traditions. As far as I understand the problem of Dubai, since this city is a major center of business, and a significant part of its business connections are Western countries, it has to represent what the Westerners think Arabic/Islamic city must look like. This is the reason for the phenomenon, which Reem Alissa criticizes.
As for my own opinion, I would agree with Reem Alissa: it is true that this “Islamic architecture” trend originates from the West, which is supported sufficiently by evidence. Nevertheless, I would not consider it something very negative. While it may be not very pleasant to know that some parts of your city are designed to be a tourist attraction or a business advertisement, it is useful to think about the positive outcomes of this phenomenon. Attracting Western partners and tourists allows a city to flourish and its population to be wealthy, have job opportunities, and live in a safe place with well-developed infrastructure.
The concept of “Islamic city” is among the most controversial topics in the contemporary urban studies. J.L. Abu-Lughod, K. Adham, and M.M. Sakr analyze this problem differently. While R. Alissa is right in her critique of “Islamic architecture,” I think that employing this style brings a lot of benefits to a city and its population.
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Abu-Lughod, J.L. (1987). The Islamic city – Historic myth, Islamic essence, and contemporary relevance. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19(2), 155-176.
Alissa, R. (2012). Building for oil: corporate colonialism, nationalism, and urban modernity in Ahmadi, 1946-1992 (Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, California). Web.
Khaled, Adham. (2008). The theming of Arabia: Cultural capitalism and the re-invention of tradition in the Persian Gulf. In Cultural capital and the reinvention of heritage (pp. 1-25). Berkeley, California: International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments.
Petersen, A. (2002). Dictionary of Islamic architecture. New York City, New York: Taylor & Francis.
Sakr, M.M. (2008). Creating the ‘Arabian’ architectural style. In A. Moustafa, J. Al-Qawasmi, & K. Mitchell (Eds.), Instant cities. Emergent trends in architecture and urbanism in the Arab world. Amman, Jordan: CSAAR Press.
Saoud, R. (2001). Introduction to the Islamic city. Web.