Bates, Daniel B. and Amal Rassam, 2001. “The Middle Eastern
City in Perspective,” in
Peoples and cultures of the Middle East
Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall: pp. 175-186.
“Is it possible to identify an “Islamic city” in contrast to other urban complexes
elsewhere in the world and associate it with a religious and cultural tradition? This is the
question posed by Dale Eickelman many years ago (1974) and which, despite numerous
subsequent books and articles that incorporate this reference in their titles, remains
Historians and urban planners both within and outside the Islamic world
seemed assured, until recently, that such an entity existed, and even strove to reproduce
features of it in planned cities such as Kuwait City and, today, in Beirut.
Janet Abu-Lughod has, in our opinion, provided the best response to this question
(1987). She suggests that instead of cataloging traits and then trying to match individual
cases, one should ask what are the forces that shaped cities, and then what, if anything, is
distinctive about cities with large Muslim populations (1987, p. 161).
At first, Abu-
Lughod offers her informal impressions of her visits to mixed Muslim and Hindu cities in
India, where, as often in the Middle East, there is strong neighborhood association with
ethnicity. She was struck by several cues, among which was the very high ratio of males
to females in Muslim public space as well as much greater levels of street noise.
Continuing with a review of the scholarly literature, she finds that while one cannot speak
of ideal types, one finds Islamic influence expressed in subtle ways, particularly in the
spatial organization of public as opposed to private areas.
Historically, this is expressed,
for example, in convoluted street patterns. While such patterns are found in ancient cities
of Europe as well, they have been retained over a much (p.176) longer period in cities of
the Islamic world.
In part this is due to the relatively unplanned manner in which the
Middle Eastern cities often expanded into rural suburbs, developing along paths or streets
which followed irregular field or garden boundaries or even the courses of twisting
waterways or canals.
While Islam is clearly an important force in the changing pattern of urban life, it
is by no means the only one (Dubben, 1992). Cities reflect social realities, including
cleavages of tribe, clan, ethnicity, and even religion, since most major cities have (or had)
significant numbers of Christian and Jewish inhabitants.
All of these factors are reflected
in neighborhood layout and spatial barriers separating quarters in the pre-industrial city.
Although there was rarely jural segregation, there was a high degree of spatial
segregation along lines of religion. The real impact of Islam, Abu-Lughod points out, was
not to determine structure and organization but to establish certain requirements and
preferences in which urban development could proceed. For example, Islam’s gender