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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. By PAUL WHEATLEY. Chicago: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2001. Pp. xvii + 572. $65.

The last page of the epilogue of this weighty volume is adorned with two pieces of Arabic calligraphy. The first states, "One would be a liar if one spoke all that one has heard." This statement reflects the capacious breadth of the late Professor Paul Wheatley's book, published posthumously, and points to the author's critical and judicious analysis of the evidence on Islamic cities of the first/seventh through fourth/tenth centuries. The study of the Islamic city has, of course, long been a subject of interest to scholars working in the field of medieval Islam. Wheatley has addressed a long-standing need in Islamic studies for an accomplished geographer and urbanist to subject the rich geographical and historical data of the Islamic past to critical analysis. Wheatley, who passed away before he could complete his editing of the book's seventeenth and last chapter, had the linguistic skills as well as the theoretical expertise to achieve the task at hand with skill and precision, just as he displayed these remarkable talents in his studies of urbanism elsewhere in Asia.

The book has three main goals. First, it stands as a critical study of the urban systems presented by the tenth-century geographer Shams al-Din Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad al-Maqdisi [al-Muqaddasi] (fl. 10th c.), a "pioneering urbanist" in Wheatley's view, whose classic work, Ahsan al-Taqdsim fi Ma'rifat al-Aqdlim, provides the rough contours for Wheatley's theoretically and empirically rich geographical eye (and is the source of the aphorisms mentioned above). Second, it provides the basis for a more systematic approach to studying Islamic cities, avoiding an essentialized conception of "the Islamic city." Third, since the book was written as much for comparative urbanists as for Islamic historians, it serves as a treatise on the nature of urbanism, and in this respect adds to the author's earlier studies on the origins of Chinese, Japanese, and southeast Asian urbanism. It is this readership that accounts for the inclusion of appendices--lists of the relevant Islamic dynasties, modern and variant place-names, and a glossary--which might seem superfluous to specialists in the region, and about which he expressed concern that these might seem "otiose" (p. xviii). His concern is unjustified. Twenty-six maps and two tables accompany the double-columned text. The volume is encyclopedic in scope and is a significant contribution to both Islamic history and comparative urbanism.

Wheatley addresses these three goals across seventeen chapters presented in three parts. Concerning his first goal, his discussion of Islamic urban systems, he relies on the full range of geographical, historical, and adab literature from the classical Islamic period, but focuses in particular on al-Maqdisi. The tenth-century geographer designated fourteen urban hierarchies in the Islamic world and identified four ranks of cities, determined by function, culminating in single metropolises. Wheatley writes: "More clearly than any other early Muslim geographer--indeed, more clearly than any other Muslim student of the city before Ibn Khaldun--al-Maqdisi recognized the city as the locale in which the essential properties of larger systems of social relations are concentrated and intensified.... No writer before his time had treated the urban network consistently as a system.... Al-Maqdisi's exposition ... must rank as one of the most ambitious studies of human organization ever attempted in the medieval world. Nor was it to be repeated for almost a millennium ... topographers and scholars who worked within the Islamic geographical tradition right down to modern times never reached the level of abstraction represented by al-Maqdisi's discussion of the urban hierarchy" (p. 64). Al-Maqdisi's hierarchies were based on political and administrative functions, reflecting the "reach of political power and authority" (p. xv).

A fruitful discussion of Al-Maqdisi's hierarchies requires further reconstruction of these regions, based on the examination of the agglomerative and accessibility factors that were at play in shaping these systems over the first four centuries of Islamic history. Wheatley discusses thirteen of al-Maqdisi's fourteen systems (dropping al-Andalus), dividing these urban centers into three analytically distinct functional categories: first, those constituting a relatively uniform spread of settlements--an exchange mart for the surrounding district ("city trade area"); second, those distributed along transportation routes; and third, clustered settlements involved in specialized activities. These urban functions are determined and discussed extensively for each of the iqlrms in the thirteen chapters of part II (chapters 4 through 16). By the tenth century, cities of the Islamic world had evolved into a "dozen or more" coherent hierarchies. Previous urban systems (the Hellenistic-Byzantine; the Iranian-Turanian; the South Arabian; the North African) had been transformed by Arab occupation; thus the importance of these systems, and of al-Maqdisi's original treatise, is that these "urban hierarchies ... were to be the principal bearers of Islamic civilization in subsequent eras" (p. xvi). But there is another purpose in examining these systems: the sum of functions that they collectively perform constitutes the rationalizing principle controlling those roles. That is to say that analysis of the urban system enables a more accurate understanding of the city.

This analysis thus leads to the second goal: to provide the basis for a more systematic approach to understanding Islamic cities. The value of Wheatley's contribution is that his view of urbanism recognizes cities' distinctive functions and regional particularities. In this respect, the book is an investigation of urban diversity in Islamic civilization. Fundamental to the author's discussion, however, and rooted in al-Maqdisi's urban hierarchies, is the notion of power. This is represented succinctly in Wheatley's recognition of the "signature of power," the architectural connection of the institutions of the seat of government (dar al-imdrah) and the congregational mosque (masjid al-jdmi'), which ceased to exist in the ninth to tenth century, coincident with the emerging distinction between religious and political life. But up until this time, the mosque is "the defining feature of the Islamic city" (p. 238), neatly summed up in a tradition related by Ibn Hanbal referring to cities as "the places where men pray together" (p. 41). However, such a view "should not be held to imply that Islamic ideals alone were responsible for the transformation of Middle Eastern cities" (p. 383, n. 207). Neither a common urban morphology nor a specific urban tradition was spread with the advance of Islam. Rather the commonality was "a style of government and a schedule of responsibilities" (p. 327) that was reflected ekistically in the relationship of the dar al-imdrah and the masjid al-jdmi' and in the foundation of the amsar. Early Islamic cities thus represent the unifying political and religious requirements of Islam. This conclusion makes sense given the historical sources, since these are dominated by a preoccupation with religious and political concerns and since documentation that might shed light on socioeconomic formations in the foundation of cities is hard to come by. Nevertheless, the argument rings true, thanks in no small measure to Wheatley's use of recent archaeological research.

The "signature of power" evident in Islamic cities allows the author--now in his role as a comparative urbanist--to address his third goal by defining the city as "an institution of institutions, the critical locality where the organizational output of one institution becomes the input of another" (p. 227). The city's most crucial export is "control"; it contains the "organizational foci of society" so that it "contrives, prescribes, modulates and disseminates order" (p. 228). In his book on the origins of Chinese urbanism, The Pivot of the Four Quarters (Aldine Press, 1971), Wheatley argued that the earliest cities were centers of ritual and ceremony. At the risk of summing up one of his books in a phrase, the founding impulse was religious. His study of the adoption of the Chinese urban tradition as a model for early Japanese capitals, in From Court to Capital (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978; with Thomas See), recognized a more explicitly political motive in the foundation of cities. In Nagara and Commandery (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), his study on the origins of urbanism in Southeast Asia, he traced a diversity of autochthonous urban traditions and external cultural influences from China and especially India that gave rise to cities and concluded that the impulse driving the earliest urban foundations was their role as ceremonial centers. In The Places Where Men Pray Together, where he is not principally interested in origins, he again has to deal with immense cultural diversity in the pre-Islamic urban traditions. In the Islamic case, the urban impulse is not exclusively ceremonial, but rather vested in "institutions of secular power and sacred authority" (p. 335).

The Places Where Men Pray Together will challenge both historians and geographers. As in his other books, Wheatley is meticulous in reviewing and assessing his evidence and careful in his argument. While he notes that more sophisticated forms of geographical analysis cannot be applied to the sparse data (p. xvi), his analysis is no less rigorous: "the content of these medieval texts must be evaluated both skeptically and contextually, chapter by chapter, line by line, even word by word if necessary. Unfortunately, imposing such restrictions on the acceptance of already scanty evidence can sometimes result in rather meager returns to generous expenditures of energy and time" (p. 173). The final result is hardly meager. The documentation alone is staggering: over 3,000 footnotes root the discussion in an enormous range of scholarly literature, both medieval and modern, and include very useful excursuses on salient problems in Islamic historiography and geography.

The second of the two Arabic aphorisms mentioned above states that "Error and omission are the condition of man." It was entirely characteristic of Professor Wheatley to recognize modestly and with unflagging curiosity that there might yet be some scrap of evidence that had escaped him. Notwithstanding this caveat, The Places Where Men Pray Together will no doubt serve as a trustworthy landmark to guide future generations of scholars.


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Author:Meloy, John L.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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