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Journalof the Economic and

Social HUtory ofthe Orient 56 (2013) 471-493

The Islamic City Critque: Revising the Narrative

Gregory Aldous*

In recent years scholars have challenged the concept of an Islamic city by constructing a
historical narrative in which it derives from the orientalist tradition. They claim that French
orientalists in the early twentieth century created an ideal type of the Islamic city as contrasted with its Western counterpart in order to support the assumptions of orientalist
discourse. Thefirstpart of the anicle challenges this assumption by showing that the French
orientalists did not in fact posit an Islamic city type. The second part offers an alternative
explanation for the genesis of the concept by tracing it to the work of American anthropologists in the 1950s.
Islamic city, urbanism, historiography, orientalism

In 1987 Janet Abu-Lughod published an article in the International fournal ofMiddle East Studies in which she presented the history of orientalist scholarship on the Islamic city.' She argued that in the mid-twentieth
century a succession of orientalists, the early ones working in French, set
out to construct an ideal type of the Islamic city. That is, they assumed that
all cities in the Islamic world were structured along similar lines; that this
structure was conditioned by the religion of Islam; and that these cities
were fundamentally different from cities in Europe. She wrote this in reaction to the attempts among contemporary Arab urban planners to resurrect
the so-called traditional Arab-Islamic city. Andr Raymond subsequently
expanded upon her narrative in an address before the British Society for

*' Gregory Aldous, History Program, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, 150 Finoli
Drive. Greensburg, PA 15601, USA: gwa2@pitt.edu.
" Janet Abu-Lughod, "The Islamic CityHistoric Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance." Intemationaljoumal ofMiddle East Studies 19.2 (May 1987): 155-176.
Koninklijke Brill NY, Leiden, 2013

DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341315


G. Aldous /JESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

Middle Eastern Studies in 1994.^ He argued that these orientalists were

blinded by their assumption that any phenomenon arising in the Muslim
world must be based on the Islamic religion and he accused them of always
making an unflattering comparison with European cities. The picture constructed by Abu-Lughod and Raymond of the history of the Islamic city
construct has become the standard narrative among scholars.'
This narrative suffers from two deficiencies. It flattens the complexity of
the orientalist discussion concerning cities in the Islamic world, and it
ignores other genealogies of the contemporary work on the Islamic city
type. The French orientalists working on Islamic urbanism in the midtwentieth century were not, contrary to Abu-Lughod's and Raymond's
contentions, involved in a common enterprise to define an ideal type of
the Islamic city. While their critiques sometimes made valid points against
some ofthe work ofthe French orientalists, on other counts they mischaracterized the work of individual scholars in order to fit them into an a priori
Nevertheless, the question Abu-Lughod raised is a valid onewhere did
this contemporary notion of the Islamic city as an ideal type originate? In
their effort to account for the existence of this assumption in the work of
later scholars like Gustave E. von Grunebaum and Ira Lapidus, AbuLughod and those who follow her have projected all the faulty assumptions
in these later scholars back onto the French orientalists who preceded them
and whom they cited. Close reading of the French orientalists reveals that
this projection is unwarranted. There is another source for this
concept^American anthropologists working in the 1940s and 1950s,
who had a strong interest in what they believed to be the way cities
^' Andr Raymond, "Islamic City, Arab Ciry: Orientalist Myths and Recent Views." British
Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 2\ .\ (1994): 3-18. For a later restatement of his argument,
making many ofthe same points, see idem, "The Spatial Organization ofthe City." In The
Gity in the Islamic World, ed. Salma K. Jayyusi (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
^' A number of authors have assumed Abu-Lughod's narrative. Some examples include Eckart Ehlers, "The City ofthe Islamic Middle East." Golloquium Geographicum, 22, Modelling
the CityCross-Cultural Perspectives (1992): 89-91; Michael E. Bonine, et al.. The Middle
Eastern Gity and Islamic Urbanism (Bonn, 1994): 21-2; Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of
Islam (Oxford, 1999): 202-4; Zeynep elik, "New Approaches to the 'Non-Western' City."
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58.3 (Sep. 1999): 375; Emily Gottreich,
"Rethinking the 'Islamic City' from the Perspective of Jewish Szcer Jewish Social Studies
11.1 (Fall 2004): 119, 120; and Rami Farouk Daher, 'Amman: Disguised Genealogy and
Recent Urban Restructuring and Neoliberal Threats." In The Evolving Arab Gity: Tradition,
Modernity & Urban Development, ed. Yasser Elsheshtawy (London, 2008): 41-2.

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


exemplified innate characteristics of their civilizations. Both Abu-Lughod

and Raymond emphasized the important role von Grunebaum played in
codifying the Islamic city type, and in fact von Grunebaum collaborated
with some of these anthropologists in the 1950s just prior to the publication of his seminal article on the Islamic city.
The present article is divided into two parts. First, an examination of
some of the French orientalist works cited by Abu-Lughod and Raymond
will reveal the nuance and diversity of their work and will show that they
do not easily fit into the standard narrative of how the Islamic city was
constructed. While Abu-Lughod and Raymond cite a variety of scholars,
for the sake of brevity I will limit the present analysis to surveying four of
the most important ones: William Marcis; his brother Georges Marcis;
Jean Sauvaget; and Roger Le Tourneau. In the second part of the article I
will discuss von Grunebaum's exposure to the ideas of his anthropologist
colleagues and argue that they had ai strong influence on the formation of
the Islamic city construct as it was adopted by scholars in the late twentieth
century as well as among some urban planners and thinkers in the Arab
world up to the present.

The Orientalists and the Islamic City

William Marcis
William Marcis typically receives credit for initiating the work on the
Islamic city model."* His 1928 article "LTslamisme et la vie urbaine" was an
attempt to explain why the nomadic Arabs took to living in cities immediately after leaving the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. He argued
that this was due to three fectors.^ First, some Bedouin aspired to sedentarize
due to the difficulty of their nomadic lifestyle. Second, although the majority of Arabs in the seventh century were nomadic, those who organized
the conquests were sedentarized Arabs living in the Hijazagriculturalists
from Medina and merchants from Mecca and Ta'if.
His third point, and the heart of his argument, was that Islam is by
nature an urban religion. "LTslm," Marcis stated, "s'affirme ds son
" See for example Abu-Lughod, "The Islamic City": 155; and Raymond, "Islamic City,
Arab City": 3.
" William Marcis, "L'Islamisme et la vie urbaine." In Articles et confrences (Paris, 1961).
These factors are summarized on p. 59 and explained in detail on pp. 59-62.


G. Aldous IJESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

apparition comme une religion essentiellement citadine."*^ The founder

and early believers were city dwellers, and it was for them that the Qur'an
legislated. Ethical issues dealt with in the Qur'an, such as financial speculation and usury, are of interest to urban merchants. The veiling of women is
only practical in an urban setting. The congregational prayer on Friday, "le
rite essentiel et le plus hautement significatif" in Islam, requires a settled
community. Marcis noted that the madhhabs calculated the minimum
size of the community differently, some requiring a city for the congregational prayer to be possible and necessary, and others putting the bar at
towns or large villagesbut they all agreed that the community had to be
settled and permanent. Marcis noted.''
That the jurisprudents restricted Friday prayer to cities raised the question as to what constitutes a city in Islamic law. Marcis cited the caliph
'Umar, the jurists Malik ibn Anas and al-Shfi'l, and the Andlusi geographer Abu 'Ubayd al-Bakri to show that the classical definition of a city was
any settlement that included a congregational mosque and a bazaar.
Marcis included an interesting anecdote from a contemporary French
traveller in Morocco. The traveller asked the name of a certain village and
his guide corrected him, using the same terminology as al-BakrI: "Ce n'est
pas un village; c'est une ville qui possde une mosque-cathdrale et un
petit bazar."*
William Marcis added to the central mosque and the bazaar a third
necessary feature of the Islamic city, the public bath, arguing that its importance has also long been recognized by Muslim writers and noting that it
has been nearly ubiquitous in the Muslim Mediterranean world since the
Umayyad period. While acknowledging that the hadith literature largely
condemns public baths, he suggested that it had become ubiquitous
because it so readily facilitates performance of the major ablution, which
explains why baths increasingly came to be annexed to mosques.'
William Marais's article does not fit easily into the Islamic city historiography, except insofar as it was cited by later authors who did in fact posit
an Islamic city. In contrast to them. Marcis did not set out to define the
Islamic city. He instead argued that Islam is essentially an urban phenom''^ Ibid.: 61. "Islam has asserted itself since its appearance essentially as a religion of the
" Ibid.: 62.
"* Ibid.: 65. "This is not a village. This is a city that possesses a cathedral-mosque and a
small bazaar."
- Ibid.: 66-7.

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


enon, and set out to define what urbanism means in terms of Islamic law
and practice. Rather than defining Islamic urbanism in contrast with
urbanism elsewhere, he defined urbanism as opposed to nomadism within
Islam. Regardless of whether one agrees with Marcis, such an argument is
not the same as defining an Islamic city model. Abu-Lughod appears to
acknowledge this when she said that Marais's article presented "only a
very modestly etched idea of the Islamic city, one which poorly distinguishes it from cities in other religious/cultural contexts and one which has
as yet no topography." In other words, William Marcis failed adequately
to describe the model he is believed to have initiated.
Georges Marcis

William's brother Georges Marcis continued his inquiry into what constitutes "urban" in Islamic culture. His most-cited statement on the topic was
his 1939 lecture before the inaugural session ofthe fifth congress ofthe
Socits Savantes de l'Afrique du Nord in Tunis. '" In the lecture, entitled
"L'urbanisme musulman,"" Marcis argued that while Roman urbanism
in North Africa is justly studied, scholars should not neglect the study of
Islamic urbanism.
Repeating William Marais's point that the city is essential to the practice of Islam, he devoted the first part of his lecture to discussing the conditions under which Muslims constructed cities. The earliest Muslim cities,
such as Basra and Kfa, were designed for military purposesto garrison
troops and to administer the conquered regions. Later frontier bases in
North Africa also evolved into cities. Aside from military cities, there are
also cities founded to serve the needs of a princely court. Like Versailles,
they often started as elaborate hunting lodges which soon became the
ruler's means of escape from the capital.'^
Turning to the urban landscape. Marcis considered several necessary features of any citysecurity, provision of water, and sanitation
and how Muslims addressed these issues. Like most pre-modern urban
dwellers, Muslims addressed the problem of security by the use of walls.
Water was provided for by means of aqueducts and cisterns. Sewerage was
"" Janet Abu-Lughod dated it to 1940, but that was the date of publication. See AbuLughod, "The Islamic City": 156.
'" Georges Marcis, "L'urbanisme musulman." In Mlanges d'histoire et d'archologie de
l'Occident musulman (Algiers, 1957): 219-31.
'^' Ibid.: 219-22.


G. Aldous IJESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

implemented in the form of street drainage, and trash removal resulted in

hills of garbage growing just outside the city. Marcis noted that oversight
of these utilities was assigned to the muhtasib, the official traditionally in
charge of supervising the markets. With regard to circulation, another necessary aspect of any city, he noted that this preoccupies modern urbanists
much more than it did pre-modern Muslims. Since wheeled vehicles were
absent from these cities, provision only needed to be made for the unhampered circulation of pedestrians and pack animals.''
Quarters could be delineated based on ethnicity or on land use, and
these could overlap if a certain land use was associated with a certain ethnic
group. The strong emphasis Muslims placed on the privacy of the family
resulted in the strict separation of residential and commercial quarters. The
commercial zone of the city had a hierarchy of uses radiating from the great
mosque. First, those uses directly pertaining to the mosque's activities: candle sellers and merchants of perfume and incense to serve the mosque's religious function, and booksellers and bookbinders to serve the mosque's (and
its associated madrasas) intellectual function. Then came leatherworkers,
clothiers, jewellers, and hatters; then merchants of furniture and kitchen
utensils; then blacksmiths. Near the gates one found the caravanserais. At
the edge of town were the tanners, dyers and potters.'"*
It becomes clear that Georges Marcis was not attempting to codify an
Islamic city distinct from cities elsewhere, far less did he claim that the
Islamic faith determined the form or composition of these cities. In speaking of "Islamic urbanism" he described urban phenomena as they occurred
in the Muslim setting, but he openly acknowledged that many of the features he identified were not unique to Muslim cities, but could be found
in many settings including medieval Europe. He did not attempt to argue,
for instance, that city walls or street drainage are unique to Muslim cities,
only that they are to be found there. When he brought up specifically
Muslim institutions, such as the muhtasib, he used it as a way of showing
how a Muslim institution was used to address a universal issue.
On the other hand, in the case of Georges Marcis, Abu-Lughod's and
Raymond's criticism that he generalized about the entire Islamic world
based on North African examples is justified. This is more apparent in the
other article of his that they cited, "La conception des villes dans l'Islam",
and so supports their argument even more clearly, even though they did
'^' Ibid.: 224-7.
" Ibid.: 229-31.

The Islamic Gity Gritique: Revising the Narrative


not make use of it in their analyses. The latter article, published a few years
later, lacks focus and wanders from one observation to another without
any clear thesis, but the basic themes can be summarized. He first discussed the factors contributing to the founding and the success of Islamic
cities. He compared three types of citiesRoman, medieval European,
and Muslimand noted their differences and similarities. He reiterated
that Islam is an essentially urban religion. Finally he described two competing forces in Muslim cities: a centripetal force represented by the congregational mosque and the Islamic faith versus a centriftigal tendency to
divide the city into quarters in contravention of Muhammad's teachings.
In this article Georges Marcis spoke clearly of an Islamic city as a category of analysis distinct from classical and medieval European cities. Pace
Raymond, however, he did not insist on the inferiority of the Islamic city.
On the contrary, when Marcis compared Islamic cities to European ones
it was as often to show similarities as differences. After observing, for example, that each type of commerce in Muslim cities was generally restricted
exclusively to one street, he stated, "II en tait de mme dans nos villes
chrtiennes du Moyen Age."'^ He also regarded the congregational mosque
as equivalent to the Christian cathedral:
Des docteurs rigoristes poseront en principe que la prire du vendredi ne peut tre
clbre que dans la mosque-cathdrale et qu'il ne peut y avoir qu'une mosquecathdrale par agglomration urbaine; de mme n'y a-t-il qu'une glise cathdrale dans
les villes chrtiennes.'*

He went on to draw a lengthy parallel between the congregational mosque

and the classical agora, both physically, in that they were built at the center
of town at the intersection of major arterials, and socially, in that they
served as the space in which public life took place.'^ It is also worth noting
that when he claimed that Muslim cities lack political autonomy, he did
not attribute this to Islam, but rather argued that Islam, represented by the

''' G. Marcis, "L'urbanisme musulman": 230. "It was the same way in our Christian cities
ofthe Middle Ages."
'" Georges Marcis, "Laconception des villes dans l'Islam." Revued'Alger2.\Q (1945): 527.
"The rigorist doctors [i.e. the 'ulam'] will propose in principle that the Friday prayer can
only be celebrated in the cathedral-mosque and there can only be one cathedral-mosque per
urban ^lomeration^just as there can only be one cathedral church in Christian cities."
"' Ibid.: 527-8. He made a similar comparison in "L'urbanisme musulman": 230.


G. Aldous /JESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

'ulama, was the chief means by which the populace resisted the demands
of their political rulers.'^
In fact in his previous article, "L'urbanisme musulman," Georges Marcis
argued for the superiority of Muslim urban form. Using the analogy of
evolution, he said urban differentiation into ethnic quarters was equivalent
to coral {madrpore)that is, simple animals composed of homogeneous
polypswhereas functional differentiation was like a higher vertebrate
with specialized organs. He went on.
L'volution normale de la cit fait prvaloir sur la diffrenciation ethnique la diffrenciation fonctionnelle. Je crois que cette dernire est plus nette dans les villes musulmanes que dans les ntres. Plus que dans nos villes existait nagure et existe encore dans
les terres d'Islam ce que nos urbanistes dsignent sous le vocable barbare de zoning:
une distinction entre le quartier officiel, les quartiers d'habitation et les quartiers

It seems unjustified to equate such statements with the generalization that

the orientalists intended to show the inferiority of the cities of Islam to
those in the West. Marcis clearly had great admiration for cities in the
Muslim world, promoting them as worthy of scholarly attention and arguing that in certain respects they were superior to Western cities. He did generalize about all Islamic cities, but otherwise Abu-Lughod and Raymond's
representation of his arguments does not hold: Marcis did not claim that
all urban features derived from Islam or that Islamic cities were inferior to
European cities. One orientalist who did assume the inferiority of Muslim cities, though he failed to adhere to the stereotype in other ways, was
Jean Sauvaget.
fean Sauvaget
Turning to the eastern Mediterranean, the French orientalist Jean Sauvaget
did a great deal of work on Syrian history, from the Seleucid period through
the Middle Ages. In several of his works he studied the built form of cities
'"' Ibid.: 524.
''^' G. Marcis, "L'urbanisme musulman": 229. "The normal evolution of the city causes
ethnic differentiation to be superseded by functional differentiation. I believe that the latter is more pure in Muslim cities than in ours. More than in our cities, there has existed
lately and still exists in the lands of Islam what our urbanists refer to with the barbarous
word zoninga distinction between the official quarter, the residential quarters, and the
commercial quarters."

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


and its evolution over time, writing extensive treatments of both Damascus
and Aleppo.^" Since these studies' conclusions and historical outlines are
essentially the same, there is no need to go over them both. AUp is more
in-depth and more often cited by later scholars so only that work will
be discussed here.
Sauvaget set out in his introduction to explain how the city of Aleppo
developed in such a seemingly unlikely location. His answer to the question is unremarkable: a combination of agricultural resources, the presence
of a tell that could be used for defense, and most importantly its location
at the crossroads of trade routes. Far more interesting is the book's explanation of the evolution of the city and its use of both historical documents
and extant archeological evidence (at least, such evidence as did not require
digging). He argued that Aleppo reached its quintessential urban form in
the Hellenistic period, this form surviving during Roman occupation. In
the Late Empire and under Byzantine rule urban life deteriorated, but that
deterioration accelerated in the Middle Ages due to two factors: the establishment of Islamic norms starting in the eighth century, and a period of
political chaos in the ninth through eleventh centuries.
When it comes to Aleppo's urban development, for Sauvaget the
Umayyad period was culturally an extension of the Byzantine. Only in
the Abbasid period did a "pense spcifiquement islamique" appear and
come to influence politics and society.^' He did not, however, stress an
accelerated deterioration of Aleppo's "urbanism" until the ninth century
as Abbasid central rule gave way to a period of political instability. With
the city contested among Byzantines, Bedouin, Fatimids and Turks, a lack
of security contributed to the rise of "socits de chevalerie" and the division of the city into quarters.^^ The civic spirit that had maintained the
old urban order crumbled away.^^ Once this happened there was no way

'"' Jean Sauvj^et, "Esquisse d'une histoire de la ville de Damas." Revue des tudes Islamiques^
( 1934): 421 -80; idem, Alep: Essai sur le dveloppement d'une grande ville syrienne des origines
au milieu du XJX' sicle (Paris, 1941). For a modem review oAlep, see R. Stephen Humphreys, Islamic History: A FrameworkforInquiry, rev. ed. (Princeton, 1991): 234-8. For his
discussion on another Syrian city, Latakia, see Jean Sauvaget, "Le plan de Laodice-surMer." Bulletin d'Etudes Orientales 4 (1934): 81-114; and idem, "Note complmentaire."
Bulletin d'tudes Orientales 6 (1936): 51-2.
^" Sauvaget,^/): 72-3.
"' Ibid.: 96-7.
"^ For the peak of Aleppine urbanism, see Sauvaget, Alep: 52, 246. For the deterioration
of the city in the Late Empire and the Byzantine period, see pp. 66-7. That the Byzantine


G. Aldous /JESHO 56 (2013) 47-493

to reverse the process, because Islam has no urbanism comparable to that

of the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations. Islamic law does not allow
for a municipal legal entity or for anyone to have a special legal status,
according to Sauvaget. Instead, all believers are equally members of the
indivisible umma.^^
It is rather ironic that Sauvaget has been included in the orientalist tradition that created the Islamic city model,^' since he assumed there was
no Islamic city and that there could not by definition be one. On the one
occasion that he described Aleppo as a Muslim city, it was in the sense that
Aleppo's population had become thoroughly Muslim.^^ Sauvaget went so
far as to say, "De la conqute arabe au milieu du xix' s., Alep est moins
une ville musulmane, stricto sensu, qu'un avatar de Bre,"^^ referring to
Beroea, the Seleucid foundation ofthe city. If he used any typology at all
(other than the classical city type implicit throughout all his works), it was
that ofthe "Syrian city";^' he regarded the cities of Syria as having undergone a similar evolution due to similar historical circumstances. Sauvaget
sometimes offered a positive observation on Islamic cities, including the
following remark that reveals something of his perspective:
... la ville qu'a modele l'Islam estindubitablementd'une valeur esthtique suprieure celle que pouvait offrir la Bre antique, dveloppant en perspectives monotones ses rues en damier et l'interminable file de colonnes de son avenue. Mais ceci
importe peu. Une ville n'est pas une uvre d'art.^^

trend continued under the Umayyads can be found on pp. 72 and 81-2, and the Abbasid
transition on p. 82. See chapter 7 for the changes wrought by the period of instability,
particularly pp. 93-7, 104-5 and 107-8.
"' Sauvaget, Alep: 73, 247.
"' See for example Abu-Lughod, "The Islamic City": 159; Raymond, "Islamic City, Arab
City": 1-7; and Eldem, Goffman and Masters, The Ottoman City between East and West
(Cambridge, 1999): 2.
^'' Sauvaget, y4/i/>: 128.
"' Ibid.: 249. "From the Arab conquest to the middle ofthe 19th century, Aleppo is less a
Muslim city, stricto sensu, than an avatar of Beroea."
"' Sauvaget, "Esquisse": 425-424, Alep: 242-244.
^'^' Sauvaget, Alep: 248. ".. .the city [of Aleppo] that Islam modeled is undoubtedly of
an aesthetic value superior to that which ancient Beroea could offer, which developed in
monotonous vistas its checkerboard streets and the interminable line of columns along its
avenue. But that matters little. A city is not a work of art."

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


Even a compliment such as this reveals how little Sauvaget thought of

Islamic cities.^" Andr Raymond was therefore right in calling attention to
Sauvaget's essentially negative definition of the Islamic city, in that Sauvaget only conceptualized the Islamic city as an absence of something.
Nevertheless there is no reason to link Sauvaget with the Marcis brothers
in a common project to create an Islamic city type. Unlike them, Sauvaget
saw the Islamic city as merely the absence of city in that it deviated from
true citiesthe cities of Antiquity.
Roger Le Tourneau
Another orientalist whose work is said to have contributed to the creation
of the Islamic city concept was Roger Le Tourneau. Like William and
Georges Marcis, Le Tourneau was a French scholar who pursued his work
in North Africa. He is best known for his books on the city of Fez. His
first, Fes avant le protectorat, published in 1949, is also the most detailed.^'
It is an encyclopedic work, dealing with Fez's history, physical setting,
demographics, municipal institutions and economy. It also delves into the
city's social fabric, discussing education, marriage and family life, and religious practices. A later edition, entided La vie quotidienne Fes en 1900,^^
was a revised and abridged version of Fes avant le protectorat.
Although both books are included in Janet Abu-Lughod's "isnd" of
orientalist scholarship on the Islamic city, in these books Le Tourneau did
not actually generalize from his case study on Fez to other cities in the
Islamic world.'' Even in those passages where one might expect it, he made
no reference to Islam being a determining factor in the features of urban
life that he described. In his detailed discussion of public baths, for example, he noted their architectural features and how they functioned, without
writing that they are necessary to Muslim life as a means of maintaining
ritual purity.''* Likewise when discussing the arrangement of the Fasi house,
he did describe it in terms later to become stereotypical of the Islamic

"" Sauvaget's contempt is at its most explicit when speaking of Latakia, "Le pian de
Laodic-sur-Mer": 81.
^" Roger Le Tourneau, Fs avant le protectorat. tude conomique et sociale d'une ville de
l'occident musulman (CasManca, 1949).
'^' Roger Le Tourneau, La vie quotidienne Fs en 1900 ([Paris], 1965).
' " Janet Abu-Lughod, 'The Islamic City": 159. Le Tourneau's later work. Les villes musulmanes de l'Afrique du Nord, will be discussed below.
*" Roger Le Tourneau, Fs avant le protectorat. 247-250.


G. Aldous/JESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

house ("trois ou quatre pices rectangulaires et allonges entourant un

patio central carr"), but he described this as typical of North Africa rather
than of Islam.'^
Even Le Tourneau's most generalizing work. Les villes musulmanes de
l'Afrique du Nord made little attempt to define an Islamic city. Despite the
title. Le Tourneau set out to describe urbanism in the Maghreb without
suggesting that his findings pertained to other regions, using the term
"musulmans" to refer to the local inhabitants of North Africa as opposed to
the French. Throughout the text Le Tourneau consistently discussed "les
villes maghrbines"zn only rarely used the term "villes musulmanes."^
Le Tourneau set out to describe urban life in the Maghreb by looking at
several dimensions ofthe city: physical form, demographics, political institutions, economics, culture, and religion, with a coda discussing European
impacts. These are basically the same topics covered in his books on Fez, in
virtually the same order. Nevertheless, he did not extend to all the cities of
the Maghreb the characteristics of Fez. While describing the Maghrebi city
in general, he also gave attention to diversity of form. This is particularly
true when describing the physical characteristics ofthe North African city.
He noted, as did the Marcis brothers, that the center of the city is dominated by the grand mosque and the adjacent central market. He gave as
examples Fez and Tunis, and the smaller cities of Nedroma and Sefrou,
adding that the only exception to this of which he knew was the Khrij
cities in the Mzab.'^ He noted a third element in the center ofthe North
African town, the palace ofthe sovereign or governor (the tir al-imra),
but stated that its presence in the center ofthe city was "beaucoup moins
constant que les deux autres." He mentioned Tunis, Tlemcen and early Fez
as examples where the dar al-imra was in the center of town, and Marrakesh and Almoravid Fez as examples where it was not, also noting that
more recently in Algiers the deys had located their palace in the central city
but relocated it to the qasba on the periphery.^*

Ibid.: 495.
^'^ Roger Le Tourneau, Les villes musulmanes de l'Afrique du Nord (Algiers, 1957). From
the context it is clear that Le Tourneau used the term musulmanes here in the sense of
"indigenous." Cf Raymond, "Islamic City, Arab City": 8; and Haneda, "Introduction: An
Interpretation of the Concept of the 'Islamic City'." In Islamic Urban Studies: Historical
Review and Perspectives, ed. Masashi Haneda and Toru Miura (London, 1994): 4.
'^' Le Tourneau, Les villes musulmanes: 11-12.
^' Ibid.: 12-13.

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


Le Tourneau was careful to note change over time throughout his discussion of Maghrebi cities. In his discussion of Jewish quarters he stated
that while Jews concentrated in their own quarters early on, it was not
until the fifteenth century that the authorities restricted them to a certain
quarter (called a melLth), first in Fez, then later in other cities.^' In his
discussion of popular piety, he noted with characteristic caution that the
sources do not allow him to state with confidence the degree to which people attended mosque in past ages.''" Le Tourneau summed up his sensitivity
to geographic and chronological variation in North African cities thus:
U est naturellement trs malais de parler de la population des villes m^rbines: les
diffrences de l'une l'autre sont considrables et, l'intrieur d'une mme ville, les
lments du peuplement ont beaucoup vari travers les ges.*'

Andr Raymond has argued that the orientalists contrasted the Muslim
towns with their Roman antecedents, and consistendy defined Islamic cities in negative terms in that they lacked the physical and political order
characteristic of ancient cities and of European cities. While Le Tourneau
did draw a contrast with Roman cities in this passage, in several places he
noted that the Maghrebi city resembled the medieval European city."*^
Furthermore, in contrast to Raymond's assertion that Le Tourneau had
a merely negative approach to describing the city, he in fact took a rather
sophisticated, and not wholly negative or dismissive, approach to such
matters as municipal institutions and public space. He noted that Muslim
cities lacked city-wide institutions, but he did not therefore conclude that
these cities lacked internal order and were thus easy to control by central
authorities. He stated that order was maintained in a different way than by
means of the municipal organ2^tions common in the West. He anticipated
the work of later historians by stating that the various communities in the
city, in their vying for particular interests, created a stable equilibrium:

' Ibid.: 18.

"" Ibid.: 89.
*" Ibid.: 27, emphasis in original. "It is naturally very difficult to speak o( the population
of M^rebine cities: the differences from one to the other are considerable and, within the
same city, the elements of the populace are quite varied across the ages."
''^' See for example pp. 13, 22, 55 and 66. Le Tourneau compared the traditional Maghrebi
markets to modern European stores on page 71.


G. Aldous IJESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

quilibre d'apparence prcaire, non pas rgl par des institutions prcises, mais quilibre de fait, fond sur la tradition et assez solide au demeurant pour avoir dur pendant
plusieurs sicles.''^

Raymond conflated the work of different orientalists into a pastiche that

does not accurately reflect any individual scholar's work. He seemed to
assume that if Sauvaget had a negative definition of the Islamic city, then
all orientalists with an interest in the Muslim city must have shared his
view. Conversely, if the Marcis brothers proposed a certain model for
Islamic urban structure, Sauvaget must have adhered to it. There is, however, no reason why we should make that assumption. On the contrary, the
Marcis brothers, Sauvaget, and Le Tourneau each dealt with quite different questions. William and Georges Marcis defined Islam as an urban
religion and attempted to identify what Islam means by "urban". Sauvaget
sought to reveal the Hellenistic urban form obscured by later Muslim habitation. Le Tourneau studied urban life and institutions in Fez and the surrounding region. Not only are these independent lines of inquiry, but they
sometimes worked at cross purposes. Georges Marcis in his enthusiasm
extolled Islamic urbanism as superior to that found in Europe, while Sauvaget saw the same phenomenon as a degenerate residue of classical glory.
Whereas Sauvaget emphasized discontinuity between ancient and Islamic
cities, Georges Marcis emphasized continuity.'*'* And neither Marcis nor
Le Tourneau claimed that all the urban elements they described necessarily
derived from Islam. Abu-Lughod and Raymond, each in their own critique, have created an erroneous impression of the history of the concept
by assuming that any orientalist who spoke of the Islamic city was attempting to define an ideal type that derived from Islam and compared unfavorably with European cities. Yet to assume that the orientalists shared a
unity of vision is unfounded.
Nevertheless, later in the twentieth century a number of scholars investigated the phenomenon of the "Islamic city" in just such termsan ideal
type, determined by the religious norms of Islam, remaining essentially the
same throughout the Muslim world and across centuries, and capable of
''^' Roger Le Tourneau, Les villes musulmanes: 46. "Equilibrium apparently precarious,
unregulated by formal institutions, but certainly equilibrium, based on tradition and quite
solid nevertheless for having endured for some centuries." Compare Ira Lapidus, Muslim
Cities in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). See also Le Tourneau's remarks
on urban insritutions in Fez in La vie quotidienne. 43.
'''" See for example G. Marcis, "La conception des villes dans l'Islam": 530-531.

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


being compared to city-types in other civilizations, such as the West. If the

French orientalists in the interwar period did not invent this concept, then
its source must be sought elsewhere.

Von Grunebaum and the Creation ofthe Islamic City Type

The first orientalist to discuss such a model was the one sometimes claimed
to be the last: Gustave von Grunebaum. His 1955 article "The Structure of
the Muslim Town" has been regarded as a key text in the orientalist project
of defining the Islamic city. Toru Miura asserted that von Grunebaum's
article "was instrumental in formalizing the concept ofthe 'Islamic city'.""*'
Andr Raymond called it the "epitome ofthe Orientalist conception ofthe
city" and also its "swan-song."''* Far from being its swan song, this article
was the first by an orientalist to define an ideal type for the Islamic city,
and is the one whose influence has continued to the present.
Not much earlier, von Grunebaum had published Medieval Islam: A
Study in Cultural Orientation. As the tide suggests, he intended to explain
the culture ofthe medieval Islamic world, "to trace the temper and flavor of
the Muslim Middle Ages.'"*^ He indicated, for example, the place of religion
in people's lives and how the major religious communities interacted. He
discussed the legal and political systems and the social order. It is interesting, though, that he devoted a scant two paragraphs to urbanism in Islam.''*
He merely summarized William Marais's argument that Islam is an intrinsically urban religion and that there was a stark eontrast in Islam between
urban and rural. What makes this interesting is that there is no hint in
Medieval Islam ofthe urban model later deseribed in his 1955 attiele."" It
is possible that von Grunebaum had in mind an Islamie eity typeas one
would expect if this was something orientalists were talking aboutbut
simply chose not to include it in his book. Given the nature of the book

"' Toru Miura, "Mashriq." In Islamic Urban Studies: Historical Review and Perspectives
(London, 1994): 88.
"' Raymond, "Islamic City, Arab City": 9. See also Abu-Lughod's treatment in "The
Islamic City": 157-158.
'"'' Gustave von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam (Chicago, 1953-first ed. 1946): vi.
"' Ibid.: 173-174.
"' Abu-Lughod also noted that this is "interesting," but made no attempt to account for
it. "The Islamic City": 157-158.


G. Aldous IJESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

and its subject matter, however, it is hard to see why he would leave out an
Islamic city model.
"The Structure of the Muslim Town" was published a few years after
Medieval Islam as part of a collection of essays entitled Islam: Essays in the
Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition.^'^ The volume considered Islam
as a unified civilization, and the essays addressed what distinguishes this
civilization and how it developed. This was an old theme for von
Grunebaum, reflected for example in Medieval Islam. Unlike Medieval
Islam though, this volume included an extended treatment of the Islamic
city. While some of the essays in the volume had been published previously, his article on the Islamic city appeared here for the first time.
In many respects the article simply amalgamated some of the arguments
of previous orientalists, for example that Islam is an intrinsically urban
religion with an antipathy toward nomadism (the Marcis brothers), and
that cities found in the Islamic world were a degenerate form of the classical city (Sauvaget). Yet while he rehashed old arguments, he recast them by
framing them as characteristic of an Islamic (or, in his words, Muslim) city
type. Throughout the article he made reference to the "Muslim town":
"The full-fledged Muslim town, as has been said before, has two focal
points.. ."^' "For the unity of the Muslim town is functional, not civic."'^
He noted that while the layout of cities in Iran and Turkestan prior to
Islam were different from those in the Mediterranean region, "within the
arbd gradually the universal pattern came to prevail," the universal pattern being the presence of a bazaar and a central mosque.^'
The article is more than just a description of the typical Islamic city. Von
Grunebaum also implicitly set out to explain how the city in the Muslim
world exemplified Islamic civilization. He argued that in Greek and Roman

"" This work appeared in two editions in 1955, but the text and p<^ination in both editions
are identical. First the American Anthropological Association published it and distributed
it with the April 1955 issue of the American Anthropologist (G.E. von Grunebaum, Islam:
Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, Comparative Studies of Ctiltures
and Civilizations 4, ed. Robert Redfield and Milton Singer, in the American Anthropologist,
57.2, part 2, memoir no. 81, April 1955). Later that year it was published in England for
commercial distribution (G.E. von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of
a Cultural Tradition, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955).
' " Von Grunebaum, "The Structure of the Muslim Town." In Islam: Essays in the Nature
and Growth of a Cultural Tradition (London, 1955): 145.
" ' Ibid.: 147.
" ' Ibid.: 148.

The Islamic Gity Gritique: Revising the Narrative


culture, the state existed prior to the individual and "only within a state
can the distinctively humane in man be adequately developed." By contrast, in Islam the role of the state was to assist individuals in their service
to God. Thus their citizenship is ofthe Muslim umma rather than of their
city.'"* Education took place in the mosque, reflecting the fact that education was motivated by religion. The division of the city into quarters was
an echo of the tribal divisions of the conquering Muslim armies in the
seventh century, each tribe receiving a portion of the newly-built city.^^
Citing Sauvaget, he noted that the orthogonal street pattern ofthe classical
city was lost in the Byzantine period, and then continued.
But the development was consiunmated under the Muslim domination, and what had
been the haphazard result of the infiltration of Orientals into the population of the
town became now the adequate expression ofthe mores backed by a definite religious
oudook on social relations. The ancient political interest in the community, the classical ideals of city-oneness and of the clarity of the architectural (and administrative)
design have been replaced by a dominant religious interest, by ideals of quarter or
group loyalty, by the desire to shield the family group from dispersal and contamination, and by the concept of government as an outside agency with which one no longer identifies but which one rather wishes to keep at arm's length from the spheres of
one's personal and ^miliar life.''

So the Islamic urban pattern was "the adequate expression" ofthe mores of
Islam, and the loyalties to quarter and group that were characteristic of this
city were urban "ideals" motivated by Islam. Elsewhere in the essay he
went so far as to say that Muslim orthodoxy was a "product of urban life."^^
Von Grunebaum treated the Islamic city as an ideal type, and he proposed
that this city type was an expression of Islamic civilization. This was shown
even in the structure of the book, where the title indicated that it was
about Islam as a ctiltural tradition, and the article on the Muslim town was
included in the section entided, "Expressions."
This represents a rather sudden appearance of the Islamic city type in
the orientalist literature, even within von Grunebaum's own work. A clue
"" Ibid.: 143-144.
"' Ibid.: 147. Note the contrast with Georges Marcis: while Marcis believed the division
of Muslim cities into quarters contradicted Islam's ideals (e.g. La conception des villes dam
l'Islam: 526-527), von Grunebaum believed that quaners, along with everything else in
Muslim cities, reliably expressed an Islamic essence.
' Ibid.: 149.
"' Ibid.: 158 n4l.


G. Aldous /JESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

as to why may be found in the circumstances of the book's appearance. It

was originally issued as the fourth volume in a memoir series entitled
"Comparative Studies of Cultures and Civilizations," edited by Robert
Redfield and Milton Singer, and was distributed with the April 1955 issue
of the American Anthropologist. Redfield and Singer were anthropologists
at the University of Chicago at the same time von Grunebaum was there.
Singer was a specialist on South Asia whose work focused on the city of
Madras, using it as a way of understanding Indian civilization. Redfield
did most of his field work in Mexico and is best known for delineating folk
society and distinguishing it from peasant society.^' A folk society, according to Redfield's model, is a small, primitive, isolated community, whereas
a peasant society is dependent upon a larger urban civilization. Folk societies have what he called little traditions, which are oral and unreflective.
Peasant societies, on the other hand, subscribe to a great tradition (or a
vernacular version of it) radiating from the centers of civilization, which
are typically cities. He regarded the villages he had studied in the Yucatan
as being part of two great traditions, the Spanish-Catholic and the native
Yucatecan. The city, as the place where the great tradition is created, is the
distinguishing mark and fullest expression of a civilization's ethos.^'
Redfield built on the work of V. Gordon Childe. Childe, an Australianborn British archaeologist, was an early popularizer of archaeology and
anthropology and wrote several best-selling books on prehistory and
ancient civilizations. He proposed two major transformations in prehistory that paralleled in their significance the Industrial Revolution that had
lately occurred in Europe. These were the Neolithic Revolution, when cultures moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and the Urban
Revolution, when cities (as opposed to homogeneous agricultural villages)
appeared. It was this that brought about civilization.*" So for Childe, and
later for Redfield, urbanism is the hallmark of civilization.
"" Redfield's magnum opus is The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1941). For an
extended treatment of the folk/peasant contrast, see his The Primitive World and Its Transformations (Ithaca, N.Y., 1953).
'" For the great and little traditions, see Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago,
1956). For the role of cities in civilization, see idem. The Primitive World and Its Transformations (Ithaca, N.Y., 1953), and Redfield and Singer, "The Cultural Role of Cities." Economic
Development and Cultural Change 3.1, The Role of Cities in Economic Development and
Cultural Change, part 1 (Oct. 1954): 53-73.
'^'' Childe's best-known works describing these processes were Man Makes Himself (London, 1936) and What Happened in History (Harmondsworth, England, 1942). Both have

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


Yet Redfield went a step further, arguing that the two revolutions posited
by Childe, the neolithic and the urban, were really one large transition.
In the long view of human affairs, the food-producing revolution and the urban revolution of Childe form into one mighty event: the transformation of the folk society
into civilization. The first revolution appears as a prelude and precondition of the
second. Taken together, they are one major turning point."

He furthermore stated that the urban revolution was the more important
phase of this transformation, because "it is with the coming of city life that
we are able to see novel and transforming attitudes taken toward life and
the universe."*^ With the development of cities, Redfield argued, comes
division of labor, the appearance of specialized trades and crafts, and new
social institutions. But beyond that, the rise of cities involves a transformation of a culture's ethos. The old order is broken down and reconstituted
in the new social environment of the city, and the city becomes the center
of the new culture, defining it and giving it its fullest expression."^^
This theme of the role of the city in the shaping of a civilization's ethos
was elaborated in the article Redfield co-authored with his colleague Milton Singer entided "The Cultural Role of Cities." They noted that while
the urban revolution involves a fundamental transformation of folk society, it does not involve a complete abandonment of the folk tradition.
Rather, that tradition is "universalized" through a process of generalization
and abstraction. The tradition, formerly oral, is committed to writing in
the form of sacred books maintained and interpreted by a cadre of specially
trained literati. These literati construct urban monuments, such as temples, dedicated to the ritualized expression of the tradition. This new urban
form of the local tradition then disseminates to the surrounding region
and replaces, or at least holds a privileged status with regard to, the local,
rural culture on which it is based."
The question of how to define and compare the major civilizations of
China, India, Islam and the West preoccupied Robert Redfield in his later
years, and he sought out collaboration with colleagues working on other
been reprinted in several editions. His most succinct treatment may be found in "The
Urban Revolution." Totvn Planning Review 2\.\ (Apr. 1950): 3-17.
' " Redfield, The PrimitiveWorld and Its Transformations: 26.
"' Ibid.: 5.
'^^' Ibid.: passim, esp. 48-58.
"* Redfield and Singer, "The Cultural Role of Cities": 66-67.


G. Aldous /JESHO 56 (2013) 47-493

regions.''^ He and Singer worked closely with von Grunebaum on several

interdisciplinary projects designed to apply their ideas to Islamic civilization. In early 1953, for example, they asked von Grunebaum to organize a
conference on the great and little traditions in Islam under the auspices of
Chicago's Department of Anthropology. The conference, entitled "Unity
and Variety in Muslim Civilization," was held in Belgium in September of
that year."^
Von Grunebaum also collaborated with Redfield and Singer on several
graduate seminars at the University of Chicago. In the spring of 1953 they
conducted an interdisciplinary seminar entitled "Islam and the West," in
which a number ofChicago faculty participated, including von Grunebaum.
This seminar continued the work of previous seminars in exploring two
questions: whether it is possible to define a civilization, and whether it is
possible to compare civilizations.*^^ This seminar was important for von
Grunebaum in formulating some of the ideas found in Islam: Essays in the
Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition,^^ but his essay on the Muslim
town probably owes more to a subsequent seminar, which dealt directly
with Islamic urbanism.
Held in the winter quarter of 1954, "The Muslim Town and Its
Antecedents" was the first in a four-seminar series funded by the Ford
Foundation during 1954 and 1955 with the purpose of promoting collaboration between the social sciences and the humanities. While Redfield and Singer were both heavily involved, the committee that oversaw
the project consisted of von Grunebaum along with the medievalist Sylvia
Thrupp and the sociologist Everett Hughes. The series, which bore the title
''" Fay-Cooper Cole and Fred Eggan, "Robert Redfield, 1897-1958." American Anthropologist, new series, 61.4 (Aug. 1959): 655.
'^'' The conference proceedings were published as Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization,
ed. Gustave E. von Grunebaum (Chicago, 1955). See pp. vii and 5 for the conference's connection with Redfield and the Anthropology Department, and see von Grunebaum's essay,
"The Problem: Unity in Diversity" (pp. 17-37) for his application of Redfield and Singer's
ideas in the Islamic context.
"' The other scholars of Islam who participated were Marshall Hodgson, Ali Othman, Muhsin Mahdi, E. Sarkisyanz and Calvin Stillman. Robert Redfield and Milton
Singer, "Anthropology 342Redfield, Singer. Comparison of Cultures: Islam and the
West. Summary and Analysis of Spring Quarter, 1953." Robert Redfield Papers, box 71,
folder 11. University of Chicago Library. A similar overview ofthe course may be found
in the Gustave E. Von Grunebaum Papers, box 12. University of California Los Angeles
'''" Von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth ofa Cultural Tradition: xiii.

The Islamic City Critique: Revising the Narrative


"Urbanisation and Cultural Change," continued with seminars on "West

European Urban Society c. 1250-c. 1450," the Spanish colonial town, and
contemporary world urbanism. The final report that the committee sent
to the Ford Foundation in 1956 noted that von Grunebaum's piece "The
Structure of the Muslim Town" arose from that seminar.^'
The immediate context, therefore, for the appearance of von Grunebaum's seminal article on Islamic urbanism was his collaboration with
social science colleagues at the University of Chicago. Anthropologists
with whom he worked had developed, independently of the orientalist tradition, a notion of the city as the quintessential expression of a
civilization's ethos. Having formed this idea, they then approached von
Grunebaum with the aim of applying this concept to the Islamic world. In
setting out to define the Islamic city type, while he took his raw material
from French orientalists of the interwar period, von Grunebaum framed
their data to address questions relevant to the climate of inquiry in which
he worked at Chicago.
Janet Abu-Lughod summed up her two "isnds" of orientalist scholarship on the Islamic city by observing.
In each case, a very tentative set of place-specific comments and descriptions appears.
These enter the literature and take on the quality of abstractions. With each telling, the
tale of authority grows broader in its application.

To some extent this can serve to describe Abu-Lughod's critique itself

While recent scholars have raised valid criticisms of the Islamic city model,
many have operated under afelsenotion of their ownthat the model was
invented by French orientalists in the interwar period. They have thus contributed to their own "isndd" of Western scholarship, consistently attributing the Islamic city type to French orientalists based merely on what
Abu-Lughod wrote about them, projecting von Grunebaum's ideas backward onto them. In the course of this they have missed a key influence on
von Grunebaum, and thus on later orientalist thought, emanating from
outside the orientalist tradition.

' " G.E. von Grunebaum, Everett C. Hughes and Sylvia L. Thrupp, letter to the Behavioral
Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation dated 2 February 1956. A carbon copy is contained in the Gustave E. Von Grunebaum Papers, box 12, folder labelled "URBANIZATION".
University of California Los Angeles Library.
' Abu-Lughod, "The Islamic City": 160.


G. Aldous /JESHO 56 (2013) 471-493

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