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.