Book Review: Islamic Empires- Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization

Justin Marozzi: Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization 

One of the starkest contrasts between the Indic and the Islamic civilizations is the relative importance accorded to the urban. Dharmic philosophies place special emphasis on solitude- going off to the forest to meditate (vanaprasthashrama) and then eventually renouncing the material world (sanyasashrama) are considered important virtues. Dharmic iconography is replete with non-urban landscapes and settings: Lord Shiva meditating in the Himalayas, Lord Krishna feeling most at home in the bucolic settings of Vrindavan, and Lord Buddha renouncing urban life to find the truth. The Monistic underpinnings of some dominant schools of Indic philosophy- the belief that the Divine exists (and can be found) everywhere- further reduces the appeal of urbanism. The final element at play here is geography: Dharmic philosophies flourished in a land of abundance- the sapta sindhu or the land of the seven rivers- a highly fertile landscape. There was little need to create the metaphorical oasis in the desert.

By contrast, Islamic civilization has always been defined by urbanism. The Prophet Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca. He spent much of his life in the cities that define Islam to this day- Mecca and Medina. While there are elements of the spiritual associated with his life- the time spent in solitude in the caves of Mount Hira, for example- the dominant strands of his life were temporal. The building of the empire beginning with the conquests of Mecca and Medina, the dispensing of justice and organising the Ummah. The concept of Jannah or paradise in Islam- a place replete with gardens- also drove the move towards the urban. In a desert region, the quest was to conquer (or build) cities: oasis where the faithful could congregate, protected from the harshness of the surrounding landscape.

Justin Marozzi, an Anglo-Italian journalist who has spent much of his life in the Islamic world, gives this twinning of Islam and urbanism an innovative twist. He seeks to tease out strands of Islamic history by examining fifteen cities across fifteen centuries- one for each century of Islam’s existence. He largely succeeds in his quest to provide a bird’s eye view of a complex and sophisticated civilization, across the arc of its history.

Marozzi is certainly not hagiographic in his treatment of the subject. He gives due regard to periods of Islamic history which were defined by liberalism and tolerance: tenth century Cordoba when Muslims, Christians and Jews coexisted in relative peace and harmony in Al Andalus (modern day southern Spain), for instance. But he is not shy in highlighting extraordinary acts of cruelty carried out by various Muslim rulers against their own subjects (often Muslim and non-Muslim alike) either. He is also unafraid of examining controversial topics: his chapter on seventh century Mecca looks at the controversial possibility of Islam not originating in Mecca. I first became aware of this thesis when I came across Tom Holland’s provocative book In the Shadow of the Sword. Marozzi’s reference to this theory would certainly not have made him popular with traditionalist sections of Muslim society.

Understandably for a book covering such a vast subject, there are hits and misses. For example, Marozzi’s description of nineteenth century Beirut is pulsating with vitality. The vivid descriptions of the life and landscapes of the city make it one of the best parts of the book. There are also fascinating insights into cities and time periods I was less familiar with: the details of thirteenth century Fez and the Qarawiyyin Library readily come to mind. For a South Asian readership, this Francophone city at the western edge of North Africa may not be as familiar as it deserves to be. The description of Dubai and its transformation from a pearl fishing village to a global city under the leadership of the visionary Maktoum family also deserves a mention. Unlike some other West Asian cities, Dubai’s rise is not because of the hydrocarbon boom, making the achievement all the more impressive.

There are also aspects of the book that are disappointing. For instance, Istanbul (Constantinople) would have certainly made it to any list of great Islamic cities. Marozzi chooses fifteenth century Constantinople and devotes a large part of his chapter to Mehmed the Conqueror’s seize and subsequent conquest of that great city. I would have preferred a Beirut-like chapter, perhaps during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, which focused more on life in the city. The choice of Tripoli to represent the eighteenth century is also questionable: the material is a bit light and surely there were better candidates?

Another glaring omission is the lack of any South Asian (or South East Asian) city in the list. The easternmost city that makes the cut is sixteenth century Kabul. Marozzi looks at Kabul through the eyes of Babur- the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty that conquered and ruled India. His memoir Baburnama is full of Turkic colonialist contempt for Hindustan- the land that he ruled- and longing for his beloved Kabul.

The lack of cities from the subcontinent in Marozzi’s book had me thinking: which two cities would make the cut and which century would they cover? The rules are that the city in question should have been ruled by Muslims even if they were a demographic minority. Sixteenth century Delhi under Akbar would make the cut, but not nineteenth century Lahore under Ranjit Singh. I would shortlist the following:

  • Multan (tenth century): Sindh and Multan were the first regions of India to fall under Islamic rule, succumbing to Muhammad bin Qasim’s armies in the eighth century. The Qarmatian Ismailis- a Shiite sect owing allegiance to the Fatimid Ismaili dynasty based in Cairo- established the Emirate of Multan in this period. Multan was a prosperous city during this period. The famous Sun Temple of Multan was still in existence. A Shiite dynasty ruling over a predominantly Hindu population during a relatively nascent phase of Islam’s history in India makes this a compelling choice.
  • Dhaka/Sonargaon (fifteenth century): A semi-indigenous Bengal Sultanate managed to rule over Bengal, as well as parts of Assam, Bihar and Arakan (Rakhine) independently from Delhi during this period. The period was a relatively prosperous one for Bengal.
  • Delhi (sixteenth century): Delhi during the reign of the relatively tolerant and syncretic Akbar would be an obvious choice for any such list. While earlier centuries would have felt like Turkic colonial rule, Akbar made a genuine effort to reach out to the local population. Some of the navratnas- jewels in Akbar’s court- were Hindu. This was also the period of synthesis between the Indic and Islamic- with a flowering of art, architecture, music, language and philosophy that reflected a confluence of two distinctive civilizations.
  • Lahore (seventeenth century): The architectural and visual glory of Lahore as we know it today- the Shalimar Gardens, the Shahi Hammam, the Wazir Khan Mosque and the Lahore Fort- are a legacy of this period. The city was lovingly adorned by the Mughal emperors Shah Jahan and Jehangir at the height of their glory- and it shows.
  • Lucknow (eighteenth century): The Shiite nawabs of Awadh added a dash of Persianite refinement to the Gangetic plains during this period. The Asafi Imambara, Qaisar Bagh and Rumi Darwaza, amongst others, are testament to their architectural legacy. The refinement was not restricted to architecture: the adab and tehzeeb– the etiquette and manners of formal courtly Urdu- is another legacy of Lucknow from this period. Eighteenth century Lucknow was arguably the apotheosis of the so-called Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb– the syncretic Indo-Islamic civilization.
  • Peshawar (eighteenth century): The winter capital of the Durrani Empire with its Wazir Bagh Gardens and Bala Hissar Fort must have been a fascinating place, straddling the worlds of South and Central Asia. The city was also overrun by the Marathas during this period, a prelude to later conquests by the Sikhs and the British. The legacy these conquests makes Peshawar a South Asian, rather than a Central Asian city.
  • Islamabad (twentieth century): the setting for the city could not have been more picturesque: nestled in the Potohar Plateau, surrounded by the Margalla Hills, Islamabad is truly a photographer’s delight. Regardless of one’s views on the two nation theory, it has to be acknowledged that Islamabad-literally the city of Islam- created in the aftermath of post-partition Punjab represented the hopes and aspirations of a significant section of South Asian Muslims. Like its counterpart Chandigarh in the Indian Punjab, Islamabad was designed as a planned city. The effort seems to have been a success, as by all accounts, it is amongst the most liveable places in Pakistan.

So there you have my shortlist: seven cities- four Pakistani, two Indian, one Bangladeshi. Five Sunni, two Shiite. If I were forced to pick just two, I would go for Lahore (seventeenth century) and Lucknow (eighteenth century). What about you? Which cities would you pick and during which period?

[The author tweets @paragsayta].

Published by

London Observer

I am an Indian professional based in London. I am interested in history, philosophy and politics, especially that of the Indian subcontinent.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Islamic Empires- Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization”

  1. You could have avoided the unnecessary potshot at Hindu lack of urbanism in the beginning. Ramayana spends a lot of time on the glories of Ayodhya as a city, and waxes eloquent on the greatness of Lanka as a city (remarking on streets, buildings gardens and groves, ponds with its fauna and whatnot). Every now and then in Hindu literature there are references to big mansions in Pataliputra or Ujjayini, praised as a glorious city. Whatever you think of the aesthetics in Hampi, the quest there was urban, and the foreign travellers’ descriptions seem to support this perception. In Shakuntalam at some point Dushyanta asks the Vidushaka to communicate something in a city-like (i.e., refined) manner to his queen – something like nAgarika-rItyA enAm saMjnApaya or so. The recipes and indulgences described in texts like Manasollasa very much signal a taste for city life.

    Here are some reasons that give a misleading impression of Hindus not being city-types –

    1. Many great Hindu cities got destroyed, for whatever reason,
    2. Historical records are scarce partly due to poor Hindu record-keeping.
    3. An ahistorical view of the past has become popular among many modern Hindus, especially in some spiritual organizations, that the past was all about renunciation, while the truth is that Indians were generally quite materialistic.
    4. Indian aesthetics is perhaps less compatible with the aesthetics of western urbanism than Islamic aesthetics.

    1. @frog, that’s a bit harsh. I was just highlighting the relative emphasis on cities, rather than making an absolute judgment. Of course Hindus/Indians built great cities. And (Sufi) Islam contains spiritual practices. But cities don’t define Hinduism in the way they do Islam.

      1. // Dharmic philosophies place special emphasis on solitude- going off to the forest to meditate (vanaprasthashrama) and then eventually renouncing the material world (sanyasashrama) are considered important virtues. Dharmic iconography is replete with non-urban landscapes and settings: Lord Shiva meditating in the Himalayas, Lord Krishna feeling most at home in the bucolic settings of Vrindavan, and Lord Buddha renouncing urban life to find the truth. The Monistic underpinnings of some dominant schools of Indic philosophy- the belief that the Divine exists (and can be found) everywhere- further reduces the appeal of urbanism. //

        The problem with above argument is this – You are linking & interpreting a particular parts of Indic beliefs to make claims about whole group. Don’t forget Artha became an important goal of a satisfactory life & was never denied completely in the same belief systems.

      2. @London Observer: Thank you for your response. Sorry if I was too sensitive, I tend to be sensitive about what I perceive as a proliferation of glib generalizations or mischaracterizations about India (elsewhere). Some of our people make crass assumptions about rocket technology, and that gets rightly thrown out; but typically western or liberal glib mischaracterizations that are mild enough to be “plausibly possible” tend to stick often for no reasons other than perceived internal elegance (e.g., Ashoka’s conversion being placed after the Kalinga war).

        Coming to this post, I would argue that even a comment on “relative emphasis” on urban life is something that requires more care and concrete arguments rather than casual deductions from Upanishadic philosophy and the like.

  2. The omission of Delhi is pretty negligent, it was a Muslim majority city before 1857 and the seat of Muslim power culture for centuries. I feel the writer omitted it because it is not a Muslim city anymore. Multan is a good mention as well.

    1. “it was a Muslim majority city before 1857 ”
      Could you provide any sources for this. I haven’t heard ir read this anywhere else until now

      1. Depends on what time frame you are studying and what boundaries you are considering, Delhi city limits would be different than Delhi province, religious composition of the population in 1900 would be different than in 1600 or 1300 even – might even be different due to external factors like Timur or Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi which changed the composition. As Saurav mentioned below, medieval population estimates are hard to quantify. Several metrics can be used, either land records or recorded names record of birth/deaths, composition of civil servants.. comparison of cultural markers like temples vs mosques, comparison of cultural practices (cow slaughter was common, we know this because the bans on it are recorded, so are the bans on liquor to discourage public drinking). 1857 almost entire population of Delhi was executed or exiled, Hindus were allowed to return however the Muslims were not and it took more than a decade for the population to be restored to previous level, hinting it was overwhelmingly Muslim majority before. Even in 1947, when we do have the actual numbers, it was 33-34% Muslim.

        1. “ 1857 almost entire population of Delhi was executed or exiled, Hindus were allowed to return “

          This theory i have only recently came across. As far I know the theory that delhi was a Muslim majority comes from the idea that Nader shah plundered and decimated the population which was overwhelmingly Muslim. Though I have come across even Hindu accounts that he slaughtered equal amount of Hindus , while Sikhs have their account that they ransacked the returning nadir shah caravans and rescued Sikhs and Hindus slaves.

          The account of Muslims being killed more in nadir shah invasion has to do with the fact that the upper and the middle gentry of Delhi were disproportionately Muslim and Nader shah own records reflect their killings more. I guess that’s the reason this idea of Delhi being Muslim majority started. No one keep accounts of Lower class killings anyways. So not sure which theory (hindu/Muslim/Sikh) to believe.

          1. Yes no one keeps account of the peasants but there is little evidence that the lower classes in Delhi were majority Hindu. The surrounding areas of Delhi province? Most definitely majority Hindu, but the city proper had a singularly Muslim character. I read one account that during 1857 when a lot of Hindu sepoys were arriving in Delhi to pledge fealty to the king, the king announced a ban on cow slaughter in the city to avoid offending the Hindu sensibilities. It wouldnt make sense to do this specifically if the city already was Hindu majority. Reading the letters of writers like Mirza Ghalib during this era also does not really suggest much Hindu presence inside the city before 1857 but he did note how the city’s character had changed overnight after 1857, where the Muslim elite was either exiled or made penniless as the British confiscated their properties and sold them off to Hindu money lenders (Khatri and Jain) who profited handsomely off the the entire saga.

            Rolling back time, Nader Shah may have killed many Sikhs and Hindus on his way to Delhi, but I don’t see that as evidence for any population composition of Delhi.. Sikhs in Delhi are mostly a post partition phenomenon.

    2. I think we should all take pops figures of medieval cities with a pinch of salt. Before the British census it was believed that Bengal was Hindu majority. Even Punjab was that Muslim heavy, no one knew.

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