That is from the news of the cities, which we relate to you; of them, some are (still) standing and some are (as) a harvest (mowed down).

The Qur’an 11:100

This meant nothing to me. ‘In which country is that?’ I asked. ‘In the country to which your index finger cannot point,’ he said, and I realised that this old sage was very wise.

Suhravardi al-Muqtal, The Song of the Tip of Gabriel’s Wings

From Plato’s Republic onwards, the idea of a politics built on an imagined city has allowed generations of thinkers to engage with the vision of a radical rupture, a break from how the world is now, and how they think we may get to that other place. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the Islamicate world produced a number of thinkers that sketched, and in some cases, built their cities. We have the desire of the celebrated poet and philosopher, Mohammad Iqbal, to fuse the spirit of the eastern poet with the western engineer, Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision of the Vilayat e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent) where religious scholars oversee a utopian society, and the black banners of Daesh (ISIS) that want to expunge colonial borders as part of their dystopian programme. But unlike the Islamic utopians of previous centuries, from al-Farabi’s The Ideal City to Sohravardi’s Nakuja-abad the utopians of the twentieth and twenty-first century have not yet explicitly designed a city. Instead, ideas have piled up and the city, rather than taking the form of Isfahan, commanded consciously by a newly world conquering Shahenshah, has, like Tehran, become sprawling, contradictory and covered in the muck of history’s most violent century.

A truly authentic vision would have to show the contradictions and mutual exclusiveness of what Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre calls ‘the possible impossible’ register of modern utopia. It would have to be a text that synthesised fiction, history and theory. It would have to sketch a city that could simultaneously hold the resolutely opposed aspirations of a revolutionary like Ali Shariati and a theologian such as Ayatollah Khomeini, of someone like Fazlallah Nouri, who fought against democracy and Ayatollah Taleqani who died mysteriously for democracy. It would have to be a text to be discovered, guided and pieced together by someone who knows the city. It would be found in the ruins of the slums that used to hang from the southern tip of Tehran, edging out into the desert. It would tell the story of a journey through the city. Like the eleventh-century philosopher and traveller Naser Khusraw’s description of Fatimid Egypt, the accounts of the places visited don’t always seem to map onto real places, but rather the unveiling of a city as a code of politics, religion and power. It would have to show the mediation and fissure intrinsic to the comparative image of utopia, corresponding to the respective vicissitudes of the concepts and ideas of ‘Utopia’ and ‘Nakuja-abad’. As such, it would require two voices. The first would be the fractured and broken voice of Tehran, straining towards the divine. The second would be framed by a voice representing the European tradition, by turns uncovering and obfuscating it.

It would be an act of the imagination. This is how it might read.

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers.

Access our entire archive of 350+ articles from the world's leading writers on Islam.
Only £3.30/month, cancel anytime.


Already subscribed? Log in here.

Not convinced? Read this: why should I subscribe to Critical Muslim?

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: