City sights in traditional Islamic garb

Islamic Urban Studies, Historical Review and Perspectives - Dictionary of Islamic Architecture
July 5, 1996

These two reference books represent the ever-growing interest in Islamic studies but should be seen in different lights. Japanese scholars are still testing the ground on Islamic studies. Scholarship in Japan until the war was, as with most Asian nations, inward looking, particularly with regard to cultural studies and the humanities. Postwar changes in telecommunications and the rise of Japan as an international economic power not only brought Japanese influence (albeit in the form of consumer goods) into every home, but also made the country look outwards, if only to learn more about potential customers. This interest soon - perhaps inevitably - developed into more scientific and scholarly approaches to evaluating other national cultures. While Europe and North America were the dominant areas of interest, the Middle East and South Asia, closer to home and constituting a vast market, were not ignored.

Islamic Urban Studies is an example of the current experimental process. The book is a critical survey of the main publications of the 19th and 20th century concerned with Islamic urban studies, and was originally written in Japanese in 1991 as a tool and source book to identify areas for further research. The present edition is revised and extended. The term "urban studies" is taken in a wide sense, and the works included range from those of a historical, geographical and social nature, to those on economics, religious law, architecture and planning. However, the book is concerned mainly with the traditional Islamic city, and justifiably excludes works on the 20th-century industrial cities of the Islamic world. As in the rest of the world, rapid modernisation, progress and modern development have changed the mechanics governing these cities, and their study requires a different approach from that of past urban environments.

Each of the five chapters is written by a different author, and is concerned with one region of the Islamic world: Iran, the Mashriq (the main Arab lands including greater Syria and Egypt), the Maghrib (North Africa and Andalusia), Turkey and Central Asia. Each chapter is split into two: a chronological survey of the publications on Islamic urban studies followed by a critical review of the works. There is a comprehensive bibliography for each area, and separate indexes for authors' names, cities and towns, and Islamic terms.

The methodical treatment of a range of material and the vast area of the world covered makes the book an important reference work, but what makes the book far more than a critical bibliography of earlier publications and a valuable study in its own right is the authors' approach to the spirit of these publications, and the question of the very concept of "the Islamic city". The choice of the Maghrib as the first chapter is not incidental. Masatoshi Kisaichi demonstrates how the French in the 19th century pioneered studies in the Muslim culture of North Africa and developed a concept of the Islamic city, as opposed to the Christian or European city. He argues that such a concept never existed historically among the Muslims themselves, nor at the time when these matters were being discussed in the West would it have meant much to Persians or Turks - whose countries were not under colonial rule.

This view held that, unlike the "progressive" European city, the Islamic city was static, shaped by a stagnant society governed by Islamic law and absolute rulers. This concept remained predominant, although British and American scholars studying the cities of Syria and other regions of the Arab lands, found great diversity in their social life and structure, and seriously questioned the French concept. Nevertheless, these studies tended to remain based on history, archaeology and Islamic law. Only in the postwar period have scholars of disciplines such as human geography and sociology started to participate seriously in the subject, and broaden the debate.

In contrast, the chapter on Central Asia records the work of Soviet scholars, who expressed a Marxist concept of the history of urban development according to which the towns of Central Asia reflect the social structure of a feudal society (where religion is not a governing factor, but merely a tool for manipulating the people). In the West the work of Soviet scholars has never attracted serious critical attention, partly because the reports are in Russian, a language unfamiliar to most western "orientalists", and partly because the Marxist view does not tally with western concepts of the Islamic city.

The chapters on Iran and Turkey illustrate the limitations of current urban studies of these regions. The authors conclude that, because these regions were never occupied by Europeans, they lacked the colonial infrastructure that had provided the grounds for detailed studies elsewhere. There are only a few serious studies by western scholars and a large amount of recent "raw material" by Iranian and Turkish researchers. The subject has not yet received the attention it deserves and the diverse nature of society in the two regions would test the concept of the Islamic city even further and lead to a better understanding.

The book's only shortcoming is perhaps the lack of appropriate weight given to South and South-east Asia. There is a brief reference in the introduction about their exclusion on the grounds that Islam was introduced there at a later date (the 12th century), an argument which does not justify ignoring the great diversity of Islamic urban life in these areas, sometimes fundamentally different from that of the Arab lands. From the point of view of urban studies, the 12th to 14th century is, in any case, relatively early. On the Indian subcontinent alone the amount of material published both under the British, and after Independence is probably greater than all the works noted in the book put together.

Andrew Petersen's Dictionary of Islamic Architecture is not, by its nature, compiled to be read from cover to cover, but to provide a manual giving architectural historians quick access to the meanings of architectural terms, and descriptions of monuments, without searching in larger volumes with a wider subject range. To test the range and usefulness of the dictionary the terms mizab: the golden water spout of the House of Ka'ba, and shadharwan: the stepped stone podium of the Ka'ba, were checked by way of example. These words, both pre-Islamic and non-Arab in origin, are so important to the architecture of the Ka'ba that while the words have long been abandoned in daily use, in referring to the Ka'ba they are preserved, and used by every Muslim making the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither word appears in Petersen's dictionary. On the grounds that these words are perhaps too specific, more common Arabic and Persian words relating to architecture and buildings, were looked up, including Arabic words - such as dukkan: shop; mida (pronounced mizaa): basin for ablution; mifa: brick kiln; mishwar: audience or council hall; rushan: windows of timber-fronted houses in Iraq and Arabia; sur: wall or rampart - and Persian words - such as darwaza: gate; diwar: wall; kungara: battlement; narda: trellis or fence; panjara: window. None was present.

Frustrated at being unable to find any of these words, the reviewer turned to the words actually given, only to find the comment on the word idgah reading: "Iranian term for an open air prayer area", and for serai: "Turkish term for palace". These are incorrect, as idgah is an Indian term of circa 15th-century origin and has never been used in Iran; and serai is in fact Persian, of ancient Persian and Sanskrit origin, meaning a house. The word has entered many languages, including Arabic, Turkish and Latin. For many other terms the meanings given are only partially correct, and variants for different countries and contexts are not given.

The spelling of the words is also unsystematic. The author seems to be unaware of elementary matters such as the pronounceable and unpronounceable "h" in Arabic and Persian. Hence Shahr-i Sabz is given as Shar-Sabz, Mashhad as Mashad, and khanaqah as khanaqa. On the other hand, the unpronounceable h (short t in Arabic) is given in entries such as Makkah instead of Makka, and Madinah al-Munawarah instead of Madina al-Munawwara. The Arabic stress on certain letters (tashdid) (such as on w in Munawwara) is also misunderstood, and often given wrongly. The list of unusual spellings or misspellings, which one can only assume have been collected from various glossaries, is too long to be detailed here.

Another type of entry in the dictionary is the name of individual monuments, cities of the Islamic world, provinces, and countries, each with a brief bibliography. These entries are mainly shortened versions of what can be found in more authoritative works such as the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Encyclopaedia Iranica. However, even these entries in the Dictionary suffer from errors and inconsistencies, and the choice of what is given and what is excluded seems arbitrary. The province of Kirman has an entry, but there is none for nearby Sind. The bibliographies often omit the main sources. On Ahmadabad, the capital of Gujarat, James Burgess's original two-volume survey of the town and its monuments is missing, and on Delhi the monumental work of Tatsuro Yamamoto on the sultanate monuments is ignored, and instead third-rate publications are listed.

The compiler of a dictionary is expected to be, if not a philologist, at least profoundly familiar with the languages involved. Petersen's total lack of concern with appropriate pronunciation of the words, or transliteration of their spelling from original languages, demonstrates a very limited knowledge of Arabic, and almost none of Persian, Turkish, Urdu and other languages of the Islamic world. It needs some boldness - if not arrogance - to compile a dictionary of foreign words without feeling a need to know the relevant languages properly. It is not therefore surprising that this Dictionary is at its best inaccurate, inconsistent, inadequate and incomplete, and at its worst ill-informed and misleading.

Mehrdad Shokoohy is senior lecturer in architecture and urban design, University of Greenwich, and an epigraphist specialising in Arabic and Persian inscriptions.

Islamic Urban Studies, Historical Review and Perspectives

Editor - Masashi Haneda and Toru Miura
ISBN - 0 7103 0492 7
Publisher - Kegan Paul International
Price - £55.00
Pages - 365

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