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Department of the History of Art and Archaeology

Islamic Urbanism: Medina to Dubai

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3

This course surveys the history of Islamic urbanism, commencing with 1st/7th century Medina and Mecca and ending with 15th/21st century Dubai. Adhering to the definition of a city by the celebrated historian of Islamic urbanism, Paul Wheatley (d. 1999), namely, “the city is not merely an aggregation of population of critical size and density, but also an organizing principle [...] a creator of effective space,” the course will proceed typologically. It will present the main types of city, the main types of “organizing principle,” that have been generated and then reproduced in the history of Islamic urbanism. Particular attention will be paid to the first two centuries and the question of a pre-and early-Islamic Arabian element in this history; a question that is also bound to that perennial worry of Islamic urban studies, namely, Is there an Islamic city?
    Importantly, this typological presentation will be punctuated by the desire to reflect upon the city as fundamental to the production of cultural and other meaning, again in accordance with Wheatley’s definition (viz., “the city is a […] creator of effective space”). Accordingly, there is a sociological element to the course, which restricts the geographical coverage to the instructor’s areas of competence in the sociology of the Muslim world. These areas are the Arab-Muslim world and, to a lesser extent, the Turkic- and Iranian-Muslim world. South and Southeast Asia, China, and, with the exception of Senegal, sub-Saharan Africa are not included.
    The kind of sociologically minded questions punctuating the course will include: the meaning of a city that is physically oriented to qibla; the role of Islamic law (fiqh) in the reproduction of certain city types; the impact of Western colonialism upon these same types; the place of the city in the Arab-Muslim imagination (imaginaire); and the role of certain city types in eschatological aspects of this same imaginaire. These and similar questions will ensure that the historical sites surveyed in the course are embedded within a network of interdisciplinary concerns, thereby helping to obviate an academic tendency to consider cities as discrete objects, intellectual possessions even, and the exclusive domain of history. City walls do not a city qua object make; rather, the city (and the discourses it facilitates) is to some extent the precondition of objecthood. Object constitution is among the city’s many effects.
    Lastly, it is helpful to emphasise that the course is not a history of the study of Islamic urbanism, nor is it intended to be vocational, a course for aspiring Islamic city planners! The focus is the city as a whole, as a meaningful (concordantly or discordantly) system; not the relationship between its parts. In that regard, a fuller title for the course might be, “Sense Matrix: Islamic urbanism, past to present, Medina to Dubai”.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

  • understand the themes, issues, and debates of Islamic urbanism;
  •  identify and compare different approaches to the study of Islamic urbanism;
  • assess critically the materials and themes explored in the course.
    Additionally, s/he will be knowledgable of both the main types of city in the Muslim world (as defined in the course description), their historical generation, and aspects of their subsequent development and/or decline. Because of the course’s sociological framework, s/he will also have an understanding of the role of Islamic urbanism in the construction of meaning in the Muslim world, and be able to apply the course’s questions and findings related to this construction to her/his studies outside of the course


1 hour lecture and 1 hour tutorial each week, for 12 weeks.

Method of assessment

Exam worth 60% of final mark, one assignment of 3,000 words worth 15% of final mark, second assignment of 3,000 worth 15% of final mark and oral exam worth 10% of final mark