Urbanism of the Historic Islamic Cities

"The most mystical, most religious, most wonderful, they are more ordinary than most things" (Alexander, 1979)

Historic city discourse in the field of urbanism usually associated with the notions of culture (a framework that recognizes social and historical dimensions of urban life), identity (specific characteristics of place), and authenticity. These concepts where invented and adopted as the main focus of a retrospective attitude in the confront with modernity and globalization.

In the case of Islamic historic cities, questions of culture, identity, and authenticity were often misjudged and misunderstood. Orientalism, which is a kind of Western intellectual authority and a style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient within Western culture, has dominated the area. Orientalist's knowledge of Islam was superficial; as a result, some concepts were misunderstood, wrongly chosen or incompletely applied. Orientalism was developed during the colonialism era that represents imbalance of power. However, powerless people had some capacity, this reticulation made the process of sorting and differentiation between authentic and exotic, much more complicated.

The history of traditional Islamic cities regarding urbanism, could be categorized into three phases; the early decades after the expedition of Prophet Mohammed (s.a.w), the following two centuries (Umayyad and Abbasid States), and the colonialism era.

Urbanism of the Historic Islamic Cities

First, it is important to note that Islam, the eternal message, has reformed the lives of Islamic societies, and had great impact on the social life. It is a religion of action and a system of life, conveyed to guide humanity, so that people march in its light and build life and culture according to its teachings.

During the early decades of Islam, cities that witnessed remarkable changes were the cities with majority converters to the new religion. The city of Al-Medina was the first city that witnessed changes. Prophet Mohammed (s.a.w), who was the ruler and the highest authority, established the cornerstone for the city of Medina. The most apparent features and policies to build the city were as follows:

Building a relatively big and central mosque (Masjid), which was a place for administration, and social gathering, in addition to worshipping Encouraging people to build their city with respect to each others' rights and with the sustainable use of available resources The urban form of the past wasn't rejected, it was developed and improved to correspond to the new requirements Collective life was encouraged; people were urged to perform their prayers in the Masjid, and deal with each other as brothers and sisters regardless their roots and social status However, the time the prophet Mohammed (s.a.w) was going through was very harsh; too many challenges and too many people wanted to stop the new faith and to do so many plots to injure and kill him. The battles between Muslims and unbelievers dominated their life activities. As a result, Islamic theory and principles didn't come to be fully practiced in urban life.

Urbanism in the First Two Centuries of Islam

"Islamic culture has always been primarily urban" (Grabar, 1995) In the first two centuries, Islamic civilization attained high level of cultural productivity. Ostentation, which is almost an expression of power (not related to Islam), was the most remarkable feature of architecture, "whatever it's social or personal function, there hardly exists a major monument of Islamic architecture that does not reflect power in some fashion" (Grabar, 1995). In this regard, it is useful to emphasize that urban features of the city are centre to this paper rather than individual buildings details.

The urban fabric of the traditional city consisted of central mosques that were multi-purpose and accessible to all, markets that encompassed other public services, a net of compressed streets of all shapes and sizes, few squares (maidans), and series of detached houses, which often contain courtyards.

The main features of urbanism were as follows There were no strict rules for the buildings' construction, however, Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) endeavoured to deduce Islamic laws and extract the regulations from their sources (Qur'an, the word of Allah, and Sunnah, sayings of Prophet Mohammed), provided systems of decision-making to organize the building process and the urban physical character.

Tyrant rulers were controlling the building process, their decisions were macro. As a result, the urban form (the three dimensional state of the city) was often an expression of their desires, and didn't conduct a pure message of Islam Although ruler's decisions where macro in nature, Islamic laws could affect the road restrictions and legislations, and the citizens aggregate significant impact on building process to some instant. Islamic affairs of the road rights and the relations with neighbours,

Islamic law of 'waqf' which resulted into real-estate perpetuity, the obligations of controlling visual overlooking for the sanctity of the family, and Islamic recommendations of beauty and aesthetic values, are some examples of that impact Traditional Islamic city was shaped by some structural elements,

including; the domes and minarets that dominated the skyline, the street qualities; such as rhythm, repetitiveness, and walkability, the axial composition with clustered houses, and the use of the square forms and courtyards The question of identity and authenticity, in terms of following Islamic theory, became very critical. The structure of the city was immense and astonishing production of coherent cultures, which responded to the rulers' wishes, building requirements and construction capabilities, but relatively engaged with Islamic thoughts Islamic teachings urge people to learn, work hard, be productive, be honest, and contribute to the civilization and the restoration of the globe. These teachings collaborated with the spiritual and love interactions to rise great commitments and devotions to build and develop all aspects of life.

Islamic conquests resulted into a great mixture of civilizations that contributed to the produce of the urban fabric. This patchwork turned the city into a panoramic displays of various cultures, and affected the building process, which made it a dilemma to separate between the genuine Islamic production and the imported one, because of some similarities between cultures, "all cultures were originally and internally coherent, bound together by a spirit and genius"(Grabar, 1995).

Urbanism of the Colonialism Era

The 19th and 20th centuries were an era of accelerated diffusion of Western ideas around the world, with no exception regarding urban design. In this period, many historic Islamic cities came under the control of different non-Islamic forces that have different ideologies and diverse policies of building and urban life. Orientalism was developed during this period, and foreign ideologies dominated. As a result, alien building modes and strange urban forms were imposed, which contributed to the loss of identity.

Urbanism features of this period were as follows Irrespective of the interpretation, colonial urbanization constructed new urban forms as a result of the coincidence between cultural hegemony and political domination. Those forms delivered a segregation system that was both ethnic and social, reflecting the colonial environment.

The urban fabric was still compact, inherited some distinctive features from the previous period. However, discrete rulers and colonizers kept dominating the decision-making process and adding dramatic changes to the coherent fabric of the city.

Sometimes, the aspirations of some of the colonized may coincide with the objectives of the colonizer, which made planning techniques and visible symbols of specific cultures easily integrated into the local context. The local context may assimilate Western style urbanism, resulting into endogenous policy of importation of Western born forms and techniques rather than from an exportation of these via colonial dominance. Introducing new forms and techniques with multiple identities weakened the cultural influence and cultural appreciation of the colonized and enhanced globalization.

The 'urban ills' associated with colonial urbanization urged the need to adopt new planning techniques, which contributed to the development of town planning. New concepts and notions evolved regarding place and space.

This demonstration of the urbanism process in the history of Islamic cities outlines the difficult and complicated task of extracting the concepts and methods that related purely to Islam, and stresses the need to study and analyze basic Islamic doctrine in relation to town planning, in order to establish a firm basis for the policies and regulations necessary to build the future Islamic State of Al-Mahdi (a.s)

2. Globalization and culture in the Current Urbanism Practice of Islamic cities

"Places are constantly in tension between what they are, what they ought to become and what the mediations of global capital and power make of them" (Arefi, 1999)

The process of urbanization and the cultural production have developed in a dialectical relationship, as they have influenced, constructed, shaped and reshaped each other. The urban fabric of most Islamic cities has changed drastically due to the influence of colonial urbanism. The diverse and tangled urban forms emerged from the colonized period, the loss of identity and authenticity due to the ideologies of the rulers which were remote from Islamic ideology, the consecutive foreign and dictator governments, and the gradual diverge of Muslims' thoughts from the basic Islamic beliefs, have evolved into a great rejection of the past and glorification of the new standards and techniques, which promoted the proliferation of inauthentic places and the emergence of placelessness.

Moreover, the invention of the car and the wide spread use of it as a way of transportation, had great impact on the urban fabric. New neighbourhoods were built on the borders of old neighbourhoods without planning strategies for integration, which widened the gap between the old and the new. In addition to that, new roads were cut into the old fabric without any considerations to the urban and social values. "In addition to commodification and devaluation of place, the roots of placelessness lie deep in globalization" (Arefi, 1999).

In the last few decades, sensible and knowledgeable architects led a retrospective revolution for cultural and identity appreciation. As a result, new attitudes like urban infill and urban conservation practice were adopted to enhance authenticity and allow flexibility to integrate the old fabric into the modern city development plans. International standards became less important and local historical identity was enhanced.

However, the contemporary discourse on the authenticity of place "has been largely influenced by modernity and globalization" (Arefi, 1999). Due to this influence on urban conservation process, cultural production has turned into a "source of opportunities and threats" (Ouf, 2001) in urban restructuring.

Cultural production, in the meantime, represents basically visible signs and symbols that express a distinct history, provide art display, and attract tourists and public with the spirit of the past "business of cities" (Sibel, 2001), without comprehensive studies for the basic elements and tools required for a successful urban practice that considers the basic principles of Islam rather than architectural symbols of a specific time.