Islam’s cities: tolerant, cosmopolitan and curious

A spirit of openness and inquiry once characterised the great metropolises of the Muslim world. No longer

Civilisation
Samarkand, 1869-1870. Found in the collection of the State Museum of History and Art, Serpukhov. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

“In the 8th century of the Christian era, the great new city of Baghdad would have been a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome.”


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hat, if anything, can the great cities of Islam teach us? I have wrestled with that question for the past five years, while researching a book on Islamic civilisation as seen through some of its most magnificent capitals and under its most successful rulers over 15 centuries. Perhaps without always realising it, I have thought about it for much of the past three decades, living and working in some of the most troubled parts of the Muslim world, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to Syria and Somalia.

For most of the 15 centuries from the founding of the faith in Mecca in the 7th century to the rise of Doha in the 21st, the Islamic world has been in the driving seat, with a succession of empires ruling over the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, swathes of the Indian Subcontinent and, of course, parts of Europe. We may rarely pause to acknowledge it in the West these days, but for the lion’s share of Islamic history the Muslim world has been ascendant on the battlefield and triumphant in the battle of ideas.

Over the course of these centuries a number of striking themes emerge in the cities I selected as exemplars. The first is tolerance, an abiding hallmark of Islamic civilisation at its apogee. Tolerance and the more or less harmonious coexistence between the three Abrahamic faiths, so rare in much of the conflict-ridden region today, were the bedrock of Damascus’s success under the Umayyad dynasty from 661–750, as they were of other imperial Muslim capitals to follow. The greatest Islamic cities set the tone for the empires they ruled over and reflected the boundless self-assurance of their masters. Damascus under the Umayyads, like Abbasid Baghdad, Fatimid Cairo, Marinid Fez, Ottoman Istanbul, Timurid Samarkand, Safavid Isfahan and Maktoum Dubai today, was grand, outward-looking and confident in its power.

Damascus, the first major Byzantine city to fall to Muslim warriors in 634, was a priceless trophy for the new Islamic caliphate surging north from the Arabian desert. The first Umayyad caliph Muawiya, well aware that most of his subjects in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt were Christian, established a climate of tolerance from the outset. The Christian family of St John (also known as St John Damascene), whose grandfather had negotiated the surrender of Damascus, was kept in charge of the treasury, the most important imperial office. When the famous cathedral of Edessa was severely damaged by an earthquake in the late 670s, Muawiya restored it. As a Nestorian bishop in Syria put it, his Muslim overlords did not fight against the Christian religion, “rather they protect our faith, respect our priests and saints, and offer gifts to our monasteries”.

In 750, the Umayyads were defeated by a new dynasty, the Abbasids, whose glittering capital of Baghdad swiftly became the greatest city on earth. Both Jews and Christians long predated Muslims in the region chosen by the caliph Al Mansur “The Victorious” as the site of his Round City and both communities were firmly rooted. As the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested: “In the 8th century of the Christian era, the great new city of Baghdad would have been a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome.”

Tolerance in Abbasid Baghdad (762–1258) was less something to boast about than a generally accepted way of life. When the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela arrived there in the 1160s, he was astonished to find 28 flourishing synagogues in the city. He reckoned the caliph, who could read and write Hebrew, “a benevolent man” who was “kind unto Israel”. Benjamin’s observation that “the Jews of the city are learned men and very rich” held true for the following 800 years, until the tragedies of the modern age. It was only during the second half of the 20th century and the early years of our own that an ancient community dating back to the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BC was hounded into extinction.

Tolerance was fundamental, too, to Islamic Cordoba, in the 10th century probably Europe’s pre-eminent city. Its estimated population of 100,000 put it on a par with Constantinople. London and Paris, with populations of around 20,000 in 1100, were minnows by comparison. A major Jewish study of Muslim Spain concluded its survey of Abd al Rahman III, the emir-turned-caliph who ruled from 912–961, with a glowing endorsement: “The chronicles of his reign include no information of any harm befalling non-Moslem communities.” The Jews’ lot during his reign was “a happy one”. This spirit of tolerance equally defined Sultan Mehmed II’s Constantinople-Istanbul in the 15th century, the Mughal emperor Babur’s Kabul in the 16th and the Isfahan of Shah Abbas I in the 17th. With self-evident caveats it finds its contemporary echo in today’s Dubai.

The second theme is cosmopolitanism. The greatest Islamic cities were melting pots of two or three of the Abrahamic faiths and a many-layered mosaic of different communities. Within their collective walls Jews rubbed shoulders with Sunni and Shia Muslims, Arabs with Afghans, Iranians, Kurds, Berbers, Franks, Greeks, Genoese and Venetians, the odd Englishman, Turks and Turkmen, Hindus, Mongols, Zoroastrians and Yazidis, alongside Christians from a smorgasbord of sects: Assyrian, Armenian Catholic, Coptic, Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite, Nestorian, Jacobite, Syriac, Protestant and Orthodox.

A defining feature of Abbasid Baghdad was its cosmopolitan population. Arabs lived alongside Persians, Indians, Turks, Armenians and Kurds in a capital of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It was a quintessentially diverse city in which art, music, wine-drinking and poetry (often bawdy enough to shock modern readers) testified to the self-confident pluralism of Islam.

Over in Cordoba, it is tempting to discern in the Umayyad caliphs’ mixed blood, from the marriage of Muslim Arab fathers to largely Christian mothers, the genetic foundation for the remarkable cultural variety over which they presided in Spain for three centuries. Many generations of breeding with women of Berber, Iberian and Visigothic stock produced a royal line that had little Arab—and a good deal of fair hair, ginger hair and blue eyes—in it. Future rulers grew up listening to Christian rituals, stories and ballads from Castile, Léon, Catalonia and France, living among architecture freighted with symbols as intrinsic to the heritage of their mothers as to that of their fathers.

The Beirut of the 19th century, the “Paris of the Middle East”, was a spectacularly heterogeneous city. Under the late Ottoman Empire, and with increasing European intervention, the mixed city of Muslims and Christians blossomed, harnessing the indigenous genius for trade, enriching its cosmopolitan residents beyond their wildest dreams and setting the bar high for pleasure-seeking sybarites. Here, as elsewhere, though, a mixed population could occasionally also spell disaster, as in the 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war which pitted Christian Maronite peasants against their Druze Muslim overlords.

A third theme is the spirit of free-ranging intellectual inquiry, following one of the most famous hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed: “Seek knowledge even to China.” Under enlightened leaders Islamic cities at their zenith were engine rooms of innovation and made noted discoveries and achievements in science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, cartography, calligraphy, history, geography, law, music, theology, jurisprudence and philosophy.

Abbasid Baghdad, a city that attracted some of the world’s most brilliant minds, was the Islamic world’s answer to Greece’s Golden Age of the fifth century BC. It was the harbinger of the intellectual advances made by both Umayyad Cordoba (756–1031) and the ancient Moroccan city of Fez, the “Athens of Africa”, under the Marinids in the 13th to 15th centuries. Nineteenth-century Beirut, meanwhile, was home to the nahda, a profound cultural awakening or renaissance that challenged the traditional hold of religion, asserted a vigorous brand of secularism and transformed the city into the intellectual capital of the Arab world. The nahda brought with it a publishing revolution and a vigorous free press unafraid to take on conservative vested interests. The old Arab saying, “Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads” obscured the greater truth that 19th-century Beirutis did all three with aplomb. Dubai today, with its Academic City, Media City, Healthcare City, Internet City, Space Centre and Future Foundation sees itself as a custodian of the knowledge economy.

To tolerance, cosmopolitanism and intellectual inquiry must be added a fourth and final theme of the great Islamic city. Flourishing trade, and the conditions needed to promote it, was its lifeblood, from 7th-century Mecca to 12th-century Cairo and Doha today. Long before it became the spiritual capital of Islam, the lodestar to which the world’s 1.5bn Muslims direct their daily prayers, Mecca was a thriving centre of trade. The Prophet Mohammed himself, like his first wife Khadija, was a successful and respected merchant. The ancient pilgrimage rituals at Mecca, in both Islamic and pre-Islamic times, were intimately connected with trade and the energetic extraction of money from pilgrims.

Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, turned Samarkand into one of the world’s richest and most magnificent cities in the 14th century. He did this both by sacking and pillaging rival Muslim cities and by establishing complete security on the trade routes that ran across his expanding empire and connected Asia to Europe. Timur liked to boast that a child could carry a purse of gold unmolested from the western borders of his empire to its farthest reaches in the east. Arriving in Samarkand in 1404, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, Spanish ambassador from the court of King Henry III of Castile, was awestruck by its sheer size and opulence. Its “richness and abundance” were “a wonder to behold”.

Trade in the Islamic world was generally considered sacrosanct and did not depend on harmonious political and diplomatic relations across the region, as elusive then as they are today. From the 10th to 12th centuries, Fatimid Egypt was a heterodox Shia state in an almost exclusively orthodox Sunni world and was frequently treated as a pariah. Yet even when Sunni Tunisia and Fatimid Egypt were at war, merchants from the two countries were still able to come and go as they pleased. In 18th- and 19th-century Tripoli, the semi-independent Karamanli dynasty grew rich through a combination of Mediterranean piracy and the ghastly desert slave trade.

Sheikh Rashid bin Said al Maktoum, architect and ruler of modern Dubai from 1958–90, strove to attract merchants from far and wide, borrowing a record sum of money to dredge the silt-filled Creek in the late 1950s. It was the biggest, make-or-break gamble in the history of Dubai and it paid off royally. The city-state never looked back.

Today the Middle East is in turmoil. In North Africa, Libya is mired in civil war eight years after the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s detested regime, while Egypt has become a police state under the iron fist of President Sisi. Further east, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Afghanistan continues its endless conflict with the Taliban, Iraq lurches in and out of havoc, bedevilled by Islamist extremism, and Syria has buried so many hundreds of thousands that precise figures of the war dead are no longer possible to determine.

Reasons for this regional dystopia abound. In The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring, the journalist Paul Danahar touches on some of the most pertinent in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Syria: authoritarianism, dictatorship, political corruption, human rights violations, unemployment, inflation, kleptocracy, poverty and sectarianism, an accurate and excoriating charge sheet on the state of the Arab world. In Tunisia these nightmarish conditions culminated in the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor so relentlessly harassed by the authorities that he set himself on fire on 4 January 2011, igniting a series of revolutions across the region.

More than eight years later, of all the countries which reverberated to the protesters’ roars of “Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam!” (“The people want to bring down the regime!”) only Tunisia has some semblance of freedom, though its people continue to battle poverty and unemployment. The Arab Spring has given way to a bleak mid-winter, eliciting comparisons with Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618–48), a devastating conflict founded on entrenched sectarian divisions and nation-state rivalry that resulted in eight million deaths.

One of the most poignant differences between the 15 cities I surveyed in their zenith and those cities today can be discerned in the make-up of their populations and the steady demise of tolerance. Over time the heterogeneous has given way to the homogenous. After concerted bursts of sectarian cleansing following the Iraq War of 2003, Baghdad, a once mixed city of Jews, Christians and Muslims, has been remodelled into a segregated, Shia-dominated city, the Sunni population cantonized in a strip of western districts. Swathes of Damascus, a once cosmopolitan paradise for Jews, Christians and Muslims, have been pulverised. In Cairo, the ancient community of Coptic Christians are an increasingly beleaguered minority.

The most notable, and damaging, aspect of continuity within the Islamic world is the form of governance. Autocratic rule continues unabated. For caliphs, sultans and emperors then, read dictators and strongmen (never women) today.

Is there anywhere we can look for more encouraging signs? The choice, alas, is limited. While Dubai may not be everyone’s cup of chai, its peace and prosperity amid this regional chaos, together with its relatively liberal, laissez-faire atmosphere, recall at least something of the spirit of tolerance and cosmopolitanism that was once so integral to the fortunes of Islamic civilization. As Dr Rima Sabban, a professor of sociology at Zayed University in Dubai, told me over a coffee at the start of my research: “Find me a Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan, Sudanese or an Egyptian who doesn’t want to live in Dubai. They all do.”