The Islamic City

The Islamic City

Social and urban historians of have often stressed the idea that these mahalles, however diverse they may have been, defined on the whole a static configuration, typical of most precapitalist urban populations.8 The mahalle is implicitly taken to be not only a basic level of social integration but also a community characterized by a high amount of autarky and an almost builtin inability to move. This static picture of the human topography of intra muros is usually taken to mean, first, that the numbers, areas, and composition of the residential mahalles were well-defined and relatively stable, and, second, that the restricted mobility of the population implied some rigidity in the ethnic/religious makeup of each of the neighborhoods.
The absoluteness of the ethnic, religious, and functional divisions embedded in the topographical makeup of the city, its cellular structure, and the absence of interpenetration between the ethnic and religious constituents were also used for claiming the existence of a specific and typical Islamic urban model, an archetypal . The functional articulation of various parts of the city, the use of public space, and its overall architectural and urbanistic consequences (the functional triangle consisting of the mosque, the market, and the public bath) were also taken to have an unequivocal and unique connection to this model. Often even the sheer physical shape of the was taken to be an unequivocal expression of its social structure, just an external sign of a system of law, social ethics, and social institutions.
The presence of ruling elites that distantiate themselves from the population at large, the general lack of urban political autonomy and of oppositional political initiatives coming from the cities in Islamic lands—as opposed to “Western”/European cities—that were attributed to this structure were taken
to be an a posteriori demonstration of the thesis.9 Some proponents of the thesis went as far as denying the existence of any sort of permanent formal institutions within the Islamic city and of any sort of corporate personality within which there might grow up an exclusive solidarity that could take
precedence over the community of “believers at large,” the umma.10 The thesis on the existence of an essentially “Islamic city” was, for a long time, surrounded by the prestige and aura of its first proponent, none less than Max Weber himself. Weber had, in fact, adduced no historical evidence
worthy of that name to support his thesis. His idea, however, was taken up by, and integrated into, other worldviews such as “Orientalism” or the “worldeconomy/world-system” paradigm. These two were obviously in dire need of defining (albeit sketchily, and notwithstanding the teleological vision involved), some overarching urban similarities that would account for the decline or
“peripheralization” of , “Islamic,” and Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth century. A classical Islamic scholar, Gustav von Grunebaum, came to the rescue in the 1950s, filled up Weber’s historical lacunae with religious and philological scholarship and, for all practical purposes, codified the concept of the Islamic city for the coming decades, and it became part of a more general typology of urban forms.11 The same codification had also been applied in the 1930s and 1940s to North African Muslim towns by the French Islamists William and Georges Marçais.12 The Eurocentric Weberian framework on urban development in Islamic lands received a more nuanced interpretation in the hands of such scholars as Ira Lapidus and Albert Hourani.13 While sharing with Weber and von Grunebaum the basic view of a disaggregated and vertically segmented typical Islamic urban structure that lacked the elements of a true civil society, these historians had a more nuanced view of the politics and governance of these cities. They admitted the historical existence of a group of denizens who could, under certain circumstances and by common consent, come to represent an (almost European) civic community spirit, a strictly local ‘asabiyya.
For a number of reasons, most of them concerning the available historical sources, scholars have so far considered the (North African as well as Middle Eastern) Arab case as the normative type of “Islamic city,” although Anatolian and other Ottoman towns, and even Istanbul, have also been envisaged within the same paradigm.
More recent studies, however, while seeking neither to question nor to support the long-standing paradigm of the Islamic city have, first and foremost, tried to diversify their historical perspective by using a larger variety of local sources. Recent historical work tends to focus on the diversity of situ-
ations and on the singularity of urban societies in Islamic lands and in the eastern Mediterranean. Efforts are made to situate and represent a greater diversity of ethnic, religious, local, and professional identities. Scholars now rightfully insist not only on the singularity of each Ottoman city, but also on that of each of their constituent parts. As Lapidus candidly wrote in an article published in 1973: “When we speak of Muslim cities, we do not speak of a special type of city society, but we refer to the predominant religious and cultural identifications of their inhabitants and the institutions built around these identifications.”14
In the residential quarters of Istanbul, settlement patterns did traditionally follow religious and ethnic lines. Socioeconomic determinants of housing patterns were, for centuries, of only secondary importance. The class- or income-based differentiation of the urban fabric did not take hold of Istanbul before well into the twentieth century. But from this observation to the idea that these residential patterns were, before the twentieth century, either frozen or at least largely predictable, there is a huge step that the proponents of this thesis would not hesitate to take. The reality is, as we shall see in the case of Kasap ƒlyas, that even in times of relative demographic stability, even before the “long” nineteenth century, both the population of Istanbul and of the traditional residential neighborhoods were in considerable flux. The demarcation lines between mahalles were never so strict and the horizontal mobility of the residents was much higher than is usually admitted. At the local level, mobility and change seem to have been the rule, not the exception.

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