In Islam’s long history, the cities that shaped civilisations

Bilal Qureshi

THE WASHINGTON POST – On their recent state visit to India, United States (US) President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump joined the legions of modern lovers who have been photographed in front of the Taj Mahal, the marble masterpiece of 17th-century South Asian architecture.

A sacred funerary structure inscribed with chapter after chapter of Al-Quran made for awkward yet understandable political staging. The Taj is a product of the medieval Islamic renaissance, when the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman empires ruled half the world as goods, religious ideas and aesthetics flowed between gilded urban centres.

The Taj was commissioned by a dynasty founded by the Emperor Babur of Kabul, and he is one of the hundreds of historical figures who appear in the new book Islamic Empires by the British journalist Justin Marozzi.

This is an accessible, popular history to introduce readers to the kaleidoscopic sweep of 16 centuries of Islamic history.

The author’s approach to this sprawling subject is to tell the stories of 15 cities, from 6th-Century Mecca to 21st-Century Dubai, that stand in for each century from Islam’s birth to its eventual spread across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

It is a noble project to illuminate this extraordinarily misunderstood civilisation in an era when Muslims appear on news feeds in stories of war, oppression and bigotry.

The author is inspired by the Greek explorer, historian and travel writer Herodotus, whose classic Histories provides his template to examine the rise and fall of urban empires.

Marozzi dives into the jasmine-scented courtyards of Damascus and the libraries of Abbasid Baghdad. He walks through the blue-tiled palaces of Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan as he recounts the victories of Tamerlane, and sails the Bosporus to re-create the brutal siege of Constantinople by Ottoman forces in 1453.

Marozzi’s 15 cities are summarised in neat 20-page chapters that open with historical maps and personal anecdotes.

The narrative tends to follow a cyclical pattern: Ascent defined by cosmopolitanism, inclusion and multiculturalism that eventually give way to brutality and barbarism.

He writes, “The greatness of the Dar al Islam, once written across the world in imperial might and splendour, with world-beating cities like Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, Fez, Cairo, Samarkand, Isfahan and Istanbul at its core, is far more difficult to discern in the early twenty-first century.”

He continues, “Division and disorder rule. Conflict and bloodshed, instability, poverty, even humanitarian catastrophe in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq, have become terrifyingly prevalent. From one end of the Middle East and North Africa to the other, vicious fitna, the age-old plague of division and strife, has erupted again.”

As a child of one of Islamdom’s great former imperial capitals, Lahore, I grew up with bedtime stories of turbaned kings, bejewelled palaces and fragrant gardens.

Even in ruin and irreversible decay, their memory remains part of the fabric of Pakistani culture and custom. In Islamic Empires, this seductive premodern heritage is cast as a weaponised study in contrast with contemporary Muslim societies.

Marozzi writes, “Kaleidoscopes are beautiful, magical things. With their revolving, ever-changing patterns of colours they mesmerise young children. They are also fragile and delicate. Their harmonious balance can be damaged. When shaken too violently they can easily be broken.”

In cities like Fez, Damascus and Isfahan that were once glamorous centres of cosmopolitanism and learning, Marozzi now sees only civilisational decline, degradation and, of course, extremism.

He makes huge editorial choices within Islam’s kaleidoscopic histories, not to mention his unexplained decision to focus on 15 cities as his narrative concept.

His most curious omission is to overlook the impact of Western colonialism on Islamic history. Many of the extremist movements Marozzi so deeply laments and resents were born in anti-colonial struggles during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Political Islam has reactionary roots, whether in the struggle against the British Empire or in the Islamic State’s (IS) calls to expel American forces from Islamic lands. That geopolitical and historical dimension is largely overlooked as Marozzi diagnoses the decline of Islamic cities as a product of internal cultural, spiritual and political stagnation.

It is impossible and irresponsible to suggest that countries like Libya, Egypt and Syria are not indeed tragic examples of political crisis and human rights violations.

But the necessary depth of perspective requires a writer to slip under the skin of historical surfaces to explain the roots of the melancholia and the complex reasons underlying cultural stagnation.

It is a project more demanding than what this quick-hit survey can accomplish. The Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s biography of her native Cairo, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul and Hisham Matar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, Libya-probing memoir, The Return, are all more-accomplished accounts of this jostling between past glories and modern melancholy in former Islamic kingdoms.

They are also love letters to societies and cultures from the inside, rendered with nuance and kindness, and above all, hope.

It doesn’t matter that Marozzi’s city selections and observations neglect contemporary Islamic countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, or that he never engages with new creative forces coming from the accomplishments of Muslim immigrant communities in Europe and North America.

His history of these vast lands has a narrow thesis, and it is a narrative of past glories and contemporary wastelands.

The book opens with a line from a Tunisian friend who tells the author, “I’m embarrassed to be an Arab these days.” The author agrees and writes, “It wasn’t always like this,” and so the story begins.

In lesser hands, Marozzi’s central thesis would be a more obvious and shrill polemic. His immersion and passion for his subject deserve admiration. But his seemingly random city selections, overt cultural assumptions and historical omissions do not.

When grappling with a subject as vast and politically fraught as Islam’s 16 centuries through such a personal lens, some degree of humility would seem reasonable.

Instead, Marozzi’s tone gives the entire project a disappointing air delivered with an outsider’s smug condescension.

Marozzi seems to appreciate Islam’s deceased past, not its living adherents and future possibilities.

In a project that claims to counter the contemporary misunderstanding of Islam, the portrait here rings as hollow as a US president’s photo opportunity before a sacred Islamic relic.