The Islamic Urbanist Tradition Is in Danger of Going Extinct

"Mosques are being built in suburban communities only accessible by car."

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Imran Aukhil describes himself as "a Muslim and a committed urbanist." Those things, he says, should be complementary rather than contradictory. And yet Aukhil, who tweets as @UrbanMuslim, says that when it comes to the way urban communities are being built in the 21st century, he is often dismayed by what he sees happening in Muslim cities around the world – and in in the United States as well.

A native of North Carolina whose parents immigrated from India and Pakistan, Aukhil has studied architecture and urban design. Now he has gone on to get his MBA so that he can put his urbanist ideals into practice in the real world, as an entrepreneur. He plans to start up an Urban Muslim blog soon; we met on Twitter and continued the conversation by phone. Aukhil says the intersection between his faith and urban design is a passion.

Damascus. (cjmac /Shutterstock)

In his design studies, he says, he was captivated by the rich urbanist tradition of the great Islamic cities of history, such as Damascus, Córdoba, and Baghdad. "The Muslim community of the past was an urban people," he says. The way that people mix together in the city – rich with poor, all backgrounds coming together in the souk and the mosque – mirrors the Islamic ideal that all people are equal before God, he says. That history inspired him to make a life that would unite all the different influences in his heritage and education.

But in recent years, Aukhil has been shocked to see what is happening to the architectural and urban forms of the Islamic tradition.

Like many others, he has been especially concerned about the demolition and construction in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which has been ongoing for the last decade.

The construction of the $15 billion, 1,971-foot clock tower known as the Abraj al-Bait has gotten international attention -- and criticism. But the utter transformation of the city, from an exemplar of traditional urban forms that date back centuries into a showplace of glitz and glossy skyscrapers, where pilgrims can pray in luxurious privacy, has received relatively scant scrutiny outside the Islamic world.

"From a religious perspective, Muslims are seeing the destruction of a lot of very significant places," says Aukhil. "It’s like a 21st century Vegas. There’s a Starbucks and Pizza Hut across the street from what 1.5 billion people consider the most sacred site in the world. We are seeing the tradition of history being wiped out."

The debate over what is happening in Mecca and in Medina, the other major holy city within Saudi Arabia, is complex. Some of it turns on religious arguments that historical sites should not become the focus of devotions. And so places like the house of the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah – which was demolished to make way for public lavatories – are seen as dispensable and even undesirable, especially by certain groups within the diverse Islamic ideological spectrum such as adherents of Wahhabism, who predominate in Saudi Arabia.

Mezquita mosque in Cordoba, Spain. (Curioso/Shutterstock)

But Aukhil’s concerns about the destruction of Mecca’s ancient urban fabric are echoed by many within the Muslim world. Last fall, an article in The Guardian detailed how massive investment by the Saudi government in lavish facilities for those making the hall pilgrimage was displacing the city’s long-time residents and gutting the city center:

"This was the most historic part of the old city," says Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, who has worked in vain to raise the profile of his country's historic sites. "It has now all been flattened." Residents were evicted, he says, with one week's notice, and many have still not been compensated – a common story across Mecca's developments. "They are now living in shantytowns on the edge of the city without proper sanitation. Locals, who have lived here for generations, are being forced out to make way for these marble castles in the sky."

Aukhil acknowledges that an ever-growing influx of pilgrims meant that Mecca’s design needed to be updated and rethought. But it didn’t have to look like this, he says. "There’s no need to have such a building [as the Abraj al-Bait]," he says. "They could make the city more pedestrian-friendly instead." The way Mecca is being rebuilt, he says, runs counter to the egalitarian principals that undergird the Islamic faith. "Economic gain," he says. "That is the only thing that I can imagine that would drive such development."

For Aukhil, the concerns about the deterioration of Islamic urban tradition don’t stop at Mecca and Medina. He also sees a lost opportunity in the developing cities of the Gulf states, which are being built at a rapid pace with essentially unlimited funding. The autocentric, high-rise fantasias that are arising there, he says, represent a huge backward step. “It seems so counter-productive to everything we’ve learned about urban environments around the world,” he says. "On the surface these societies look like they’re progressing. But the people are sheltered, not being exposed to the urban environment."

A mall in Abu Dhabi. (Daniel Leppens/Shutterstock)

And in the Muslim communities of the United States, Aukhil says the way that mosques are being developed not only runs counter to the historic practice of building in the center of an urban area, but also widens rifts both within the Muslim community and between Muslims and their fellow Americans. “Suburban mosques feed into the already negative isolationism that Muslim communities face today. Suburbs propagate isolation,” he wrote on Twitter recently.

"Mosques are being built in suburban communities only accessible by car," he says. "They tend to divide the community along cultural lines, economic lines. Many of the Muslims in America today are immigrants or children of immigrants. They don’t understand the importance of maintaining the urban tradition."

Reviving that tradition and bringing it into the future is what Aukhil aspires to do. "That is my ultimate goal," he says. "To put these principles into action."

Top image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.