Ibn Khaldun comes immediately to mind when reading Justin Marozzi’s Islamic Empires. The eminent Tunisian historiographer saw the city as an ultimate culmination of civilisational processes but also a nemesis of tribal asbiyaa, which could easily destroy the achievements of a civic society. Marozzi covers the fifteen centuries of Muslim history by focussing on fifteen cities. A gigantic project! But vulnerable to selectivity and even reductionism. The volume benefits from a combination of primary and secondary source-material and follow-up visits. It is often not too far away from reminding its readers of the repeating cycles of violence that wreaked havoc on urban spaces by ruthless individuals in their unscrupulous quest for power. 

The chosen cities, while being the foci of political and cultural attainments, periodically fall prey to killing sprees with unrestrained slaughters and wanton destruction. In other words, violence has not been an unfamiliar reality; it happens too often and that too at the hands of fellow Muslim stakeholders as if it was instinctive, especially when it would routinely degenerate into vengeful campaigns against siblings. A work of this nature and genre could easily lead a reader to conclude that it is yet another specimen of Neo-Orientalism. But the book’s vistas are laid out quite skilfully making such a generalisation difficult. Still, the text raises a pertinent issue: what went wrong? The answer is in the selective nature of the contents and details often rushing from heyday to hellish times, nudging the reader towards some uniquely Muslim penchant for self-destruction, where achievements of a few are wiped out by masquerading successors. Each city here embodies a journey towards hard-earned actualisation owed to some creative pioneer yet its grievous dissolution also seems to be waiting in the wings; and thus, the cycle of progression and ultimate regression happens with mundane regularity. Marozzi’s selection, as he acknowledges in his prefatory remarks, is often personal and discretionary but with a certain intent to weave these fifteen micro stories into a macro narrative. 

Justin Marozzi, Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilisation, Allen Lane, London, 2019.

We begin with Mecca, ‘the mother of all cities’. Marozzi is not so sure about the centrality of Mecca as per Muslim beliefs and narratives since the city is almost absent from the Quranic text. Neither does he find any elaborate commentary in any contemporary non-Arab texts. Certainly, with the abrasive Saudi behemoths operating as history erasers – rightly mourned by Marozzi – locating the multi-layered history of this city has become even more problematic. The Wahhabi irreverence for past heritage and unbound Saudi eagerness to draw in money from eager pilgrims may not minimise the city’s religious significance though the former has triumphantly destroyed Mecca’s frugal but pristine identity. Like Ziauddin Sardar’s Mecca, Marozzi too narrates atrocities and extremities perpetrated on the Ka’aba by the claimants of Muslim power, often from the very Quraysh tribe or from amongst the Peninsular clans operating as highwaymen. However, challenged by many lesser-known heroes such as Abdullah Ibn Zubair – Abu Bakr’s grandson whose severed head was put, by the Umayyads, on Sanctuary’s entrance – Meccan travails predate its current Wahhabi guardians and spoilers. One may have several gripes with the Ottomans but there is no denying the fact that they ensured peace in Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Antioch, Karbala, Kufa and Samarra, an achievement that their predecessors and successors often failed to accomplish. Even when challenged by Sunni bashing Safawids and Shi’i busting Wahhabis, Ottomans thwarted such volatile encroachments. Like the present-day Saudi monstrosities enfeebling and even the dehumanising Ka’aba, Marozzi’s searchlight on Caliphs Abdal Malik and Walid bin Abdal Malik redefining Jerusalem and Damascus, respectively, remains pertinent, as it takes into account their construction of the Dome of Rock, Al-Aqsa and the Umayyad Mosque. Marozzi reminds us of the Jewish and Christian roots of these sites, which elevated Islam to a higher pedestal in those two traditional centres of theological and political power. Damascus, even more than Jerusalem and certainly a world apart from Mecca, was not just a theological centre; it was a cultural hub with its unique political magnificence. Jerusalem had almost become a backwater with Damascus and Antioch assuming a higher profile – under both the Byzantines and then the Umayyads – whereas ‘culture was never part of Mecca’s centripetal attraction’. Following Hisham’s disastrous invasion of Constantinople in 717–18, several latter descendants of Abdal Malik, excluding Umar bin Abdalaziz, fell victims to drink and debauchery, allowing Abbasids a bloody march over them. A younger and solitary Umayyad prince, Abdar Rahman, managed to escape the assassins and fled to distant Cordova to begin a new chapter in the history of Iberian Islam. 

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