BMCR 2001.09.12

The Places Where Men Pray Together: Cities in Islamic Lands Seventh Through the Tenth Centuries

, The places where men pray together : cities in Islamic lands, seventh through the tenth centuries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xviii, 572 pages : maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 0226894282 $65.00.

Medieval Islam represents the repository of many intellectual, cultural, and artistic trajectories that originated in the ancient world. As Islam spread out of its nomadic Arabian environment engulfing, almost overnight, the Middle East, Persia, and North Africa it became the political and administrative glue connecting some of the most highly urbanized regions of late antiquity. The standard assumption is that the iconoclastic Muslims simply destroyed what did not conform to their religious worldview and proselytized by the sword. These assumptions, however, ignore the rich exchanges and interchanges between Islam in its formative period and the philosophical, architectural, and religious heritages that it inherited. These exchanges and interchanges, in turn, not only made a tremendous impact on the way in which Muslims understood both themselves and their tradition, but also circled around and subsequently influenced the shaping of European civilization.

Within this context, Wheatley’s posthumously published work seeks to define and nuance the Islamic city and its relationship to earlier, preexisting urban patterns. Wheatley, who was professor emeritus of Comparative Urban Studies at the University of Chicago, published widely on the cross-cultural phenomenon of urbanism. He had worked on both Chinese ( The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Inquiry in the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City) and South Asian material ( Nagara and Commandery: Origins of the Southeast Asian Urban Tradition). It is often the case that such cross-cultural work translates into superficial treatments of the various area concerned: a lack of knowledge in the primary source languages and an unwillingness to scrutinize the actual texts including their interpretive traditions. Wheatley, fortunately, is guilty of neither of these charges. Rather, he has created a richly documented and unparalleled study of urban geography in the first four Islamic centuries. The publishers note that Wheatley had been working on this book for over twenty years, and his exhaustive attention to detail (there are over a hundred and fifty double-columned pages of notes) and his desire to nuance rather than generalize admirably support this claim.

Wheatley’s definition of what constitutes a city is intentionally vague: rather than focus on traditional definitions such as aggregation, size and density, he is interested in the external and internal contexts in which each Islamic city finds itself. This contextual approach is important because it takes into consideration not only the specific details of each city’s historical development, but also how that city relates to other communities—economically, socially, and religiously—within an urban hierarchy.

He begins by defining a city as “a set of functionally interrelated social, political, administrative, economic, cultural, religious, and other institutions located in close proximity in order to exploit scale economies” (59). Together, he argues, such cities constitute an “urban system”: “a group of such institutional sets, together with their attributes and mutual relationships” (59). The main thesis of this work is that, contrary to expectation, the early Muslim armies did not attempt to recreate the urban morphology of the Arabian Peninsula (including Mecca and Medina, which function as the spiritual epicenters of Islam) in new areas (327). This is, however, a difficult thesis to support not only because of the lack of early (sixth- to ninth-centuries) Muslim sources, but also owing to the dearth of the archeological record for many of the sites in question.

Wheatley argues that since the majority of the urban areas the Muslims encountered had been founded in antiquity, they adopted and adapted existing patterns according to two features. The first was based on the utility of each city (e.g., proximity to resources, trading routes); the second was the desire to create a religiously significant environment. I think, however, that he overstates the desire of the early Muslims to adhere to the prophetic message in this adaptation. It is one thing to want to build a mosque in a new city, but does this necessarily translate into the imposition of a monolithic religious system? Here, it is important to remember that Islamic doctrine, sectarianism, etc. was very fluid at this juncture. The real novelty of Wheatley’s approach is his unwillingness to conclude that all Islamic cities simply conformed to a prototype. On the contrary, he argues that each city possessed its own dynamic context that determined how it functioned within the broader parameters of the Islamic world.

The book itself is divided into seventeen chapters that comprise three parts. The first part of the book, consisting of three chapters, provides a basic history of the development of Islam from the perspective of settlement activity. Following this is a chapter devoted to the different types of cities in Islam, e.g., spontaneously generated, garrison towns, those modified by Islam, and how Islam both affected and was affected by preexisting urban patterns.

Included in the third chapter is a discussion of the primary sources that can be used for an understanding of tenth-century urban systems in the Middle East. Of primary importance here is al-Maqdisi, a tenth century traveler and geographer, who wrote a treatise entitled kitab ahsan al-taqasim fi ma`rifat al-aqalim. Although Wheatley is interested in the Muslim city from the seventh to the tenth centuries, virtually all of his sources come from the tenth century. This means that he must essentially retroject tenth century models and understanding back on the previous three. Indeed, in many instances he must rely on these later literary sources because there exists little or no archaeological report.

The second part of the book, the heart of the study, consists of thirteen chapters that provide systemic studies of the thirteen hierarchical urban systems originally identified by al-Maqdisi. These thirteen systems stretch from Spain and North Africa in the West to India in the East. In particular, Wheatley focuses on the changing external relations between cities as they relate to their positioning within a specific urban system. For example, is city “x” a metropolis (misr), a provincial capital (qasibah), a district capital (madinah), or a broad band of urban centers? Within this system, each city’s function was dependent upon such features as its location to natural resources, its positioning on trade routes, etc.

The third part of the work consists of one lengthy chapter that deals with epiphenomenal expressions of religious, political, and economic institutions that are internal to the Islamic city. This chapter, more tentative than the ones proceeding it, offers overviews and occasionally new interpretations of features such as the mosque (types, location, etc.) and the suq (marketplace). The book concludes with an epilogue, two appendices (one on the principal Islamic dynasties and one on modern and variant place-names), exhaustive notes, a glossary, and a bibliography.

An important dimension of Wheatley’s work is his desire to redefine the status and morphology of cities that were either conquered by, or surrendered to, the invading Muslims (292ff.). Again, rather than posit a monolithic paradigm that holds for every city, he argues from a functional perspective that these “adapted cities” were “utilized by Muslim authorities in whatever ways best fit the circumstances of time and place” (292). Once again, there is a real difficulty here, one that Wheatley is aware of, but one that I am not sure he entirely succeeds in escaping. Since there are no actual primary accounts describing this process of adaptation or transformation, he must essentially infer his conclusions inductively from archaeological evidence (where it exists) and later textual allusion.

As far as the classical city is concerned, the standard assumption is that the Muslim invaders destroyed the urban grid system that was characteristic of the Roman and Byzantine city. According to this argument, the various Muslim communities within each city degraded the orthogonally reticulate street pattern by superimposing their own communal facilities (e.g., mosques, public baths, markets). Wheatley, however, following the lead of others, argues that this process of degradation had occurred much earlier—as early as the second century C.E.

Although this is an extremely valuable study, there are problems with certain aspects of Wheatley’s argument. As mentioned above, he overstates the role of what would only later become orthodox Islam in the emergence of the nascent, what I would prefer to call small-m “muslim” polity. He argues, for instance, that in “whatever type of settlement Muslims might find themselves, it was incumbent on them to create an environment maximally conducive to the service of God by endowing every aspect of life with religious significance” (329). Why? What evidence is there for this? There is a danger here in ascribing later theological justification back onto an earlier period—something that Wheatley cautions against in other areas (e.g., 327). The fact of the matter is we know very little about the first couple of centuries of Islam. If we follow Wansbrough’s suggestive thesis that the Qur’an is actually a much later document than we have traditionally thought,1 how might this affect Wheatley’s thesis on the “islamicization” in the seventh through ninth centuries?

Islam thus moved into preexisting urban areas at a more formative juncture in its historical development than Wheatley acknowledges. How might these urban systems have influenced Islam rather than the other way around? Unfortunately, Wheatley rarely entertains the possibility of this, for want of a better word, symbiosis. Wheatley notes that the Muslims often re-consecrated previous sacred sites e.g., churches, shrines as mosques. But how did this re-consecration impact Islam’s sense of destiny as the inheritor of classical civilization? For example, Jerusalem—originally called Iliya by the Arabs, reflecting the Roman Aelia—witnessed one of the most impressive adaptations of any city occupied by the Muslims. When Aelia capitulated to the Muslims in 638, a makeshift mosque quickly replaced the Herodian Temple. Shortly thereafter the Dome of the Rock was erected according to the architectural canons of Byzantine Christianity. Regardless of the internal political motivations involved in this action, how did the absorption of Jerusalem i.e. the great city upon whose urban landscape Judaism, Christianity, and Rome had left their marks affect Islam rather than vice versa?

On a related note, how might the Muslim urban landscapes of the tenth century have influenced other phenomena that involved classification or taxonomies? Logical taxonomies, if Durkheim and Mauss are correct,2 are not generated ex nihilo but ultimately reflect societal taxonomies. How might urban hierarchies in Islam, then, have subsequently permeated the classification of Islamic reality? For instance, the tenth century is often equated with the Islamic “Renaissance” of classical philosophy. How might the ordering of a city have influenced the ordering of the various sciences, or even what sciences were important? In other words, the makeup of the Muslim city needs to be better connected to the broader sociological, cultural, historical, religious, and intellectual forces of the day.

From the discipline of the history of religions, one of the most disappointing aspects of this book is Wheatley’s reluctance to make informed generalizations on the nature of urban systems from a cross-cultural perspective. Given his previous studies on ancient Chinese and South-East Asian cities, no one was in a better position to make conclusions about the basic human need to congregate and subsequently transform and order space. Are there any phenomenological parallels or, perhaps even more importantly, significant discrepancies in the way different cultures do this? Obviously, this need not involve the construction of a monolithic or artificial pattern of urban morphology.

Also confusing is his ambiguous interchanging of both modern and ancient place names. In fact, the appendix on “Modern and Variant Place-Names” exacerbates this problem because the entries are arranged alphabetically according to the modern term. Furthermore, Wheatley habitually interchanges the modern English place name with the transliterated Arabic, often within the same paragraph e.g., Alexandria and Iskandariya on p. 299, which would undoubtedly confuse the reader without a ready knowledge of Arabic language geography.

The weaknesses mentioned in the previous few paragraphs are anything but fatal. On the contrary, Wheatley is to be commended for providing an accessible and richly detailed work that should function as the point-of-departure for studies on the Islamic city for years to come. Indeed, the real value of this book resides not in its thematic treatment of urban systems in Islam, but in its rich details about specific cities.


1. John Wansbrough, The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 57-59.

2. Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, transl. Rodney Needham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 3-9.