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Cities and Caliphs: On the Genesis of Arab Muslim Urbanism.

The starting point of Nezar Alsayyad's Cities and Caliphs addresses an important problematic in Middle Eastern historiography, namely, the "Muslim city" as a construct of orientalist scholarship. Alsayyad promises to deconstruct this concept with the help of new data from the chronicles of al-Baladhuri, al-Yaqubi, al-Tabari, Ibn Asakir, and al-Maqrizi, arguing that political matters were more instrumental than religious ones and that the caliphs' political visions and programs played crucial roles in the formation of the early Muslim cities. But the author's stated goal is even more ambitious. He claims "this work is more a thesis about history from the point of view of method...." Furthermore, he attempts "to marry ... the practice of urban history and the analytical techniques of urban forms and design." After a discussion on the historiography of the Muslim city, Alsayyad examines the garrison towns of Basra and Kufa, urban transformations in Damascus, Aleppo, and Cordova, and the planned capital cities of Baghdad and Fatimid Cairo.

Perhaps because it tries to be too many things at the same time, the book ends up by dissappointing the reader on all fronts. This is especially unfortunate given the framework of recent post-colonial criticism that re-evaluates different aspects of orientalist and colonialist scholarship with growing authority and eloquence, cutting through various disciplines. Although a revisionist approach to the "Islamic city" has already been undertaken rigorously by Janet Abu-Lughod in a memorable article (IJMES, May 1987), a further investigation with detailed case studies would have been most welcome.

One of the disturbing aspects of this book is its derivative nature. Alsayyad himself states that his main theses are derived from other scholars: chapter II "primarily build|s~ on Abu-Lughod's work"; chapter III "explore|s~ ... further" Oleg Grabar's argument about the classical moment of Islamic art and "primarily refer|s~ to the work of Fred Donner"; chapter IV asks questions, which "in a variety of works, Oleg Grabar has answered...." One might have accepted this approach had Alsayyad expanded it significantly through his case studies. But, he frustrates the reader by referring to the same texts and urban examples already dissected by other scholars. For example, in tracing the origins of the stereotype for the Muslim city, Alsayyad quotes the same passages from Gustave von Grunebaum and Georges Marcais that Abu-Lughod had quoted earlier and repeats Abu-Lughod's analyses. Not everything has been said on historiography, however, and this chapter could have taken a new avenue, if, say, the author had considered the Marcais brothers' "Muslim city" in reference to the broader French colonial discourse. There are other problems with Alsayyad's use of sources and literature. The authority of a powerful text, such as Edward Said's Orientalism, is understandably overwhelming for younger scholars. However, even in this age of "intertextuality," it is worthwhile to reflect upon ethics in academia. Consider the following passages, the first from Edward Said's Orientalism, the second from Alsayyad's Cities and Caliphs, granting that Alsayyad does not credit Said for this borrowing:

I have attempted to raise a whole set of questions that are relevant in discussing the problems of human experience: How does one represent another culture? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one's own) or hostility or aggression (when one discusses the "other")? Do cultural, religious, and racial differences matter more than socioeconomic categories, or politicohistorical ones? How do ideas acquire authority, "normality," and even the status of "natural" truth? (Said, pp. 325-26).

In this chapter ... I have also attempted to raise a whole set of questions relevant to a discussion of Muslim city form: How does one represent cities? What is city form? Is the notion of a distinct city based on religion a useful one? How do concepts and ideas acquire legitimacy, and how do scholars acquire authority? (Alsayyad, p. 41).

It is curious that although Alsayyad seems to sympathize with the approach of post-colonial critics, he ends up by constructing once again the Muslim city of orientalist scholarship. I believe this stems from a heavy reliance on pre-revisionist literature and the sketchy, brief treatment of the case studies; Damascus and Baghdad are the best studied cities in this book, but the discussions do not extend beyond Jean Sauvaget (1934, 1949) for Damascus and Jacob Lassner (1970) and Salih El-Ali (1970) for Baghdad (the coverage of Cordova, glossed over in two-and-a-half pages, is unacceptable to the serious reader). In this context, Alsayyad's Arabic sources do not deliver what was promised in the prologue and only provide anecdotal information. There is no discussion of the early Arabic historiography, which could have explained some of the problems in the references to these early chronicles.

Alsayyad undertakes a formal analysis of the cities he studies mainly through schematic drawings, based on Roger Trancik's "diagram of urban design theories" (1986). While useful to beginning students of urban design (Trancik's audience), these diagrams simplify urban forms into mechanical abstractions and obscure layers of complexities. Especially after Klaus Herdeg's ground-breaking graphic analyses of the "formal structures" of several Islamic cities (1990), Alsayyad's illustrations will not satisfy those interested in Muslim urbanism.

Cities and Caliphs suffers further from technical problems. Spelling mistakes in all languages abound; even proper names are frequently misspelt. The quotations are full of mistakes, sometimes distorting meanings; thus "square" becomes "Senate", "virgin" becomes "urban", "thinker" becomes "school". These could have been considered insignificant oversights if in some cases they did not mislead the reader. To illustrate with one example, in quoting von Grunebaum, Alsayyad omits the quotation marks in von Grunebaum's text that delineate the passages von Grunebaum himself quotes from Georges Marcais. Alsayyad then proceeds to "detect a considerable similarity between von Grunebaum's descriptions of the typical Muslim town and the earlier descriptions provided by the Marcais brothers ..." (!)

Cities and Caliphs challenges the reader to re-think the criteria for good scholarship. In spite of his valid and well-articulated intentions, Alsayyad does not meet these criteria.
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Author:Celik, Zeynep
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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