Urban Places Rich in Islam? – The Ethos of an Islamic City in the Modern World

A Trajectory of a Half-Forgotten Concept

Istanbul’s enigmatic name mirrors its versatile history. While today Istanbul’s name is considered etymologically related to the quotidian expression of its well-established Christian population εις την Πόλιν (is tim polis, to the city), folk-etymological accounts of Turkish people attibutes its origin to the phrase Islam bol which means “rich in Islam” (Inalcık 2001). But how can a city be “rich in Islam?” To rephrase the question: What does an idealized vision of an Islamic city look like?

The current conjuncture demands a deeper reflection on urban visions. Today, in a postmodern and neoliberal era, teleological city projections including an Islamic city are considered primordial. Instead, international city-branding and consulting offices tailor and design our city’s future and advertise future visions that have political, ethical and material consequences for all of us. But like any envisioned future perception, our contemporary city visions are not built upon a non-primordial “blank slate” but take stock of a specific historical understanding of urban modernity and ethics. Bearing this fact in mind, my ultimate objective is to ask what the historical understanding of an idealized city vision of Muslims looks like and how it was co-created by a vivid discourse of various scholars I contend that the Islamic world’s critical, yet embracing stance toward Hellenistic philosophy shaped a teleological vision of an Islamic city which was  subject to diffusion in the last three centuries. Notwithstanding the generalizing and non-exhaustive character of an historiographic trajectory, my purpose is to suggest a grounding in which different domains of thought are related with the contemporary discourse of gradually decolonizing urban social theory.

Hellenistic Legacy

If scholars attempt to elaborate on idealized forms, such as an ideal type of a city, they cannot avoid Plato’s theory of forms. This theory arguably contends that an ontologically superior form exists for each object in the physical world. Such forms are called Platonic Ideas and are, according to Plato, essential for producing knowledge. He takes up the case of an ideal city as  the central theme in his Republic. In this work, Plato transmits his thoughts through fictitious dialogues between various characters, of whom Socrates is the protagonist. Through the dialogue, Socrates describes a city with three classes (guardians, merchants and legislators) and argues that an ideal city, named Callipolis, could be maintained if harmony between those classes prevails. Hence the ongoing debate about the ideal city quickly evolves into a discussion of harmony and justice. Thus, the quest of an ideal city becomes a quest of a just city. In the end, Socrates and his interlocutors conludes that a just city is in need of a philosopher-king who lead the inhabitants to virtue (Plato 2003, Morrison 2007). 

Another point to consider when referring to Plato and Hellenistic philosophy is the significant relationship between metaphysical cosmic order, society’s order, and the moral order of an individual human being. In this sense, the ideal vision is an endeavour for harmonization, if not a Stoic seek for congruence. The imagination of Callipolis is not an end in itself but rather a metaphoric instrument to ethically hone the soul of an individual human and initiate a virtuous resemblance between the soul, the city (polis), and the broader cosmos. For this reason, the quest for an ideal and just city is an attempt to provide a sound and healthy condition to maintain a happy life for individuals. 

However, Aristotle (2009) criticized Plato for attributing only the individual soul with a specific purpose (telos). For Aristotle, the telos was not merely an individual and ethical notion but also intertwined with the entire polis. This argument led him to establish an “architectural science” known today as political science. Plato was prudent to foster a purely ethical contemplation about the soul through the polis and the cosmos, and Aristotle expanded Platon’s atomic approach in his Nicomachean Ethics. In this work, Aristotle laid the ground for the distinction between theoretical and practical sciences. In his argumentation, the theoretical sciences are bound by a principle-orientated approach to pursue the truth. The theoretical sciences consisted of physics, mathematics and metaphysics. In contrast, the principles of practical sciences – ethics, household management (economics) and politics – have an agency relation and are less rigid in their justification because they influence and are influenced by cultural contingencies. 

The vision of an ideal city or state as a social organization emerges in the Nicomachean Ethics from the theoretical relationship between ethics and politics. But Aristotle’s and Plato’s thoughts maintain a close relation since both stipulate the direction of human deeds on a holistic telos: the pursuit of happiness (eudaimonia). The Hellenistic philosophy imagined both the household and the polis as a means for human attainment of virtues. After a millennium, this virtue-led concept was apprehended by Muslim scholars who critiqued the Hellenistic framework to develop their own idealistic urban environment. 

Critical Remake by Islamic Philosophers

A domain of Muslim scholars, namely the Muʿtazilites, discerned Aristotle’s work early on in their attempt to establish Islamic Thought following the birth of Islam in the 7th century. As implied in the term, Islamic Thought is not a mere belief of revelation but rather an endeavour, after Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ death, to create a comprehensive ontology and epistemology that reconciles the norms prescribed by Islamic law and the norms specified by the autonomous reasoning capability of humans. These synthesized and often contested principles were a product of intense discourse between two early disciplines of Islamic Thought. On the one hand, there was ilm alkalām that represents the discipline of (rational) theology. On the other hand, there was falsafa – Arabicization of the Greek word philosophia – whose supporters see themselves as the heirs of Hellenistic philosophy. Although the lines between the two schools are blurred, the domain of falsafa was a primary driver in creating an intellectual landscape of Islam. For example, Al-Ghazalī with a profound skepticism of kalam and philosophy, stated in his book Miyār’ul-‘ilm that logic (mantiq) is an inevitable requirement in acquiring knowledge. Although Al-Ghazalī clearly recognized the limits of logic by contrasting it with the mystical experience (mushahadah), he underscored the pertinence of logic by including it as a compulsory subject in the curriculum of the Nizamiyyah madrasa.

Under such circumstances, an Islamic city cannot only be a symbolic vision of Quranic references to heaven. It is also a reinterpretation of Hellenistic understanding of ethics and politics. To this end, the envisioned city of Muslims absorbed Aristotelian and Neoplatonian thought. In the following, I would like to outline this combination by focusing on two Islamic philosophers.

The first scholar is the Persian author Ibn Miskawayh. In his ethical treatise Refinement of Character Traits (Miskawayh and Zuray 1968), he aimed to harmonize the distinct approaches of the Neoplatonic medic Galen and religious law (shari’ah). Ibn Miskawayh reiterated the learnable character of habitual forms and argued that it was only with a systematic ethical instruction based on Islamic law that would lead city dwellers to a happy life. In the absence of such an education, the city was doomed sooner or later to a chaotic place inhabited by a degenerative society. Notably, a very similar notion was addressed in Judaism by Maimonides, who was likewise inspired by a range of Hellenistic and Arabic philosophers.

The second scholar, Abū Nasr al-Fārābī, is considered as the first “political thinker” in the Islamic world. In one of his most renowned works, lavishly named Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuos City (Al-Farabi and Walzer 1998), al-Fārābī discussed the systemic approach of Aristotle. He cultivated a coherence between the Neoplatonic soul, urban society and cosmology with state-of-the-art Arabic terminologies. What distinguished Al-Fārābī from the political philosophy of his Greek counterparts was his introduction of the leading role of prophecy. While Plato mentioned in his Republic a philosopher-king as the ideal ruler, Al-Fārābī expands this role to prophets without explicitly referring to Islam and Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Instead, he viewed both the philosopher-king and prophet-king as equally legitimate due to their ethical state of perfection (Adamson 2015, pp. 106–108). Hence, he defined some characteristics of ignorant cities by sorting their defective ethical aspirations, such as cities that principally rely on quick wealth (nezzāq), desire (shahwah), honour (kerrām), force (taqallub), physical needs (arurah) or democracy (jamaiyyah).

Interestingly, the democratic city is considered as one of the regimes where the best and worst regime can conveniently emerge. Since the society determines politics auto-referentially according to their contingent ethical condition a democratic city is seen as the penultimate stage before either entering a virtuous (fahila) or a depraved (fasiq) city. Hence, the non-virtuous city was determined by a medicalized understanding of ethics. Immature cities possessed specific “disease symptoms” which have accordingly “curative treatments” detectable only in the best of cities. But what does the best city of Al-Fārābī and early Islamic scholarship look like, without relying on a dialectical antithesis?

Al-Fārābī’s best city was characterized by the simple fact that a prophet or philosopher-king led it in the universal knowledge of ethical perfection. In such a city, the inhabitants are enjoying a perfect leadership and are guided towards virtue without pondering about every virtue in their actions. Consequently, the best city for Al-Fārābī is a prophecy-inspired virtuous city, as the book’s title openly suggests.

In the 14th century, another groundbreaking effort to revive the realm of practical philosophy was made by Ibn Khaldūn. He was the self-declared founder of the “science of human organization” (‘ilm al-‘umrān), criticizing precedent historical approaches and Aristotelian ethics and politics (Khaldūn and Rosenthal 2015). Following Al-Fārābī, he introduced cutting-edge Arabic terms to rejuvenate contemporary economic and political thought at that time. Similarly, Ottoman scholars such as Kınalızâde Ali Çelebi or Taşköprüzade Ahmet seized those ideas by developing the intellectual realm of ethics and politics (Üçer 2017). 

At this point, it becomes clear that once an ideal form of thought had consolidated within a discipline in the premodern world, the consecutive imaginations stayed in a critical yet linked relationship to the tradition. Rather than proclaiming a revolutionary paradigm shift, their highly sophisticated critique depicted spatiotemporal actualizations of the metaphysic-inspired ideal city concept. Without crushing cosmological understandings, this literal “down-to-earthiness” fostered a discursive and vivid trajectory, starting from the Hellenistic tradition over Al-Fārābī’s virtuous city, up until the verge of modern times.

Modernity: Diffusion of Religiously Envisioned Cities

In the context of enlightenment and disenchantment in the West, urban futures framed by classical metaphysical virtues gradually dissipated after the 18th century. Modernization, in a dominant narrative, was not only caused by breakthrough theories of European intellectuals and scientific advancement but also, if not predominantly, by rapidly changing socio-economical and political conditions in the West. With the political purpose to geographically expand beyond Europe, the demand for researching culturally idiosyncratic epistemologies to sustain colonizing activities increased. A vivid example of the scientific need for maintaining colonization in the long term was the growing pertinence of anthropology and oriental studies. Concerning urban studies, Orientalists made numerous attempts to empirically conceptualize the oriental and in particular, an Islamic city. However, the preeminence of empiricism in the early modern era discounted scholastic and teleological concepts as unscientific. As a result, religiously envisioned city concepts across the globe gradually dissolved, while secularized visions – such as Thomas More’s (2014 [1516]) utopian island – took over and shaped industrialized urban dreamworlds. 

In more recent times, Orientalists conducted extensive ethnographies to comprehend an Islamic City. Abu Lughod (1987) criticizes Orientalists for treating single cities in some geographies as a prototypical case for a broader concept of an Islamic City. Moreover, Orientalists have constructed their understanding by solely taking objects of material infrastructure, such as grand mosques, central markets and public baths into account. This has resulted in an over-emphasis on urban form and neglected the complexity of a city and the multitude of social forces that constitute the urban topos. On the whole, an epistemological gap between the socio-legal reality of Islamic cities and the compartmentalized approach of an hegemonic mindset of orientalists/empiricists still echoes our postmodern knowledge production. Hence, without obfuscating prevalent social problems in Muslim-majority cities, it is less surprising, that Islamic urban life and its vision as a whole is still intellectually convicted as dreamy, chaotic and backward.

Ways Forward: Decolonial and Prophecy-Inspired Urban Theory

In conclusion, the vision of an Islamic city emerged from a seminal analysis of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic concepts of Islamic thinkers. Both traditions have a teleological city vision and aim for a condition of happiness (eudaimonia/al-sa’adah) between the individual soul, society, and the cosmic order. As for the Islamic city, it stands and falls with a hitherto resilient bedrock of moral principles brought by the revelation of the prophecy of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. However, this bedrock is not an isolated historical and geographic artefact, as represented by modern theocratic rule or Orientalist inquiries, rather it is an open horizon for the endless variations of human agency via our reasoning capacity. Its moral core is encircled by dynamic human interactions, enabling an organic vigour that encourages cultural, economic and political activities in different places at different times. In an era where classic and nation-centred modernity is overtaken by planetary urbanization and accelerated neoliberalization, it is more than ever inevitable to ponder upon the half-forgotten vision of Islamic cities. In this respect, I believe that the localized urban sphere with physical vicinity and social propinquity is more accessible to the ethical image of an Islamic city than the hopeless claim of establishing a Hegelian Geist of modern-day Islamic states (Hallaq 2013). The strive for such an absolutist Geist reflects more a pursuit for political hegemony than the teleological pursuit for happiness and ethical completion. The city as a socio-spatial middle ground is a place where political catchwords and ethical visions are necessarily disenchanted by the mere pressure of setting a physical example of implementing them. 

To return to the question of whether a city can be “rich in Islam”:  casting aside its ontological status and the epistemological validity of prophecy-brought proposals, an Islamic city vision is either an empirical aspiration of or an outdated theocratic artefact. It remains, at best, a research object for anthropological or historical inquiries. To this end, the ongoing attempt to decolonize urban social theory (Robinson 2006) will be a litmus test for Western Academia in broadening their perspectives to reapproach urban futures and even more for philosophy/prophecy-inspired urban scholarship who need to substantiate the integrative effect of teleological city concepts in a ferociously fragmented world.

Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, J.L., 1987. The Islamic City – Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19 (2), 155–176.

Adamson, P., 2015. Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Al-Farabi, A.N. and Walzer, R., 1998. On the Perfect State. Kazi Publication.

Aristotle, 2009. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford.

Hallaq, W., 2013. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press.

Inalcık, H., 2001. Istanbul. Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi.

Khaldūn, I. and Rosenthal, F., 2015. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Princeton University Press.

Miskawayh, I. and Zuray, K., 1968. The Refinement of Character (Tahdhīb al-akhlāq). Beirut: American University of Beirut.

More, T., 2014. Open Utopia. In: S. Duncombe, ed. Selections from Utopia. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 83–101.

Morrison, D.R., 2007. The Utopian Character of Plato’s Ideal City. In: G.R.F. Ferrari, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 232–255.

Plato, 2003. The Republic. 6th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, J., 2006. Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development. New York: Routledge.

Üçer, İ.H., 2017. İslam Düşünce Tarihi İçin Bir Dönemlendirme Önerisi [A Proposal for Periodizing the History of Islamic Thought]. İslam Düşünce Atlası.

Photo by Florian Wehde


About the Author: Burak Barut is an MSc student studying Human Geography and Urban Studies at the London School for Economics and Political Science.

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