/ Response to Noreña: Comments from a Historian of Islamic Iberia

Carlos Noreña describes how Segobriga, a town in central Spain, an imperial backwater, became Romanized in the first century of the Common Era—some two centuries after central Spain was incorporated into the Roman empire. Evidence for this Romanization includes monumental construction and public space (forum, theater, amphitheater, temples, bath complex), increasingly Roman coinage, and adoption of the Roman “epigraphic habit.” Noreña argues that the material transformation of Segobriga marked and informed the development of a Roman political-cultural habitus. Romanization did not simply coincide with the shift from republican to monarchic government in Rome but was defined by it; indeed, similar changes occurred in other provincial regions. The Roman shift to a monarchic system wrought significant cultural change for two reasons: the motivation of local elites to adopt the “Roman cultural package” in order to promote their own status, prestige, and authority; and monarchy’s symbolic “glue.”

I have been invited to address Noreña’s essay from the perspective of my field: Islamic History. My research area is al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia) and the Maghrib (western North Africa). There are a number of ways to engage with this conceptually exciting argument. To begin, as a way to facilitate comparative discussion, I would like to first draw attention to three parallels: between the concept of the “Roman city” and the “Islamic city,” between concepts of Romanization and Islamization, and between Noreña’s analysis of Segobriga and Chase Robinson’s analysis of Mosul. I would like to suggest ways in which Noreña’s argument for the “stickiness” of monarchy is born out in the context of medieval Islamic history and consider ways in which comparative analysis can open up productive avenues of inquiry.

Noreña has an archetypical Roman city in mind when he describes the transformation of Segobriga in the first century of the Common Era. He describes a “more or less standard urban ‘kit’” and relates its elements (including forum, basilica, curia, temples, baths, theaters and amphitheaters, and an axial road system) to underlying principles of “symmetry, axiality, verticality, the intertwining of sacred and political space, the function of a central square as a site of aristocratic display, and the architectural and visual prominence of buildings designed for urban leisure and sociability” (5–6).

Scholars of Islamic urban history debate about the value and meaning of a parallel archetype of the “Islamic city.” Concerned about Orientalizing typologies that teleologically oppose “Western” and “Eastern,” “European” and “Islamic,” they ask: Are there essential differences between Roman and Islamic cities or does the question result in essentializing categories? Janet Abu Lughod wrote a trenchant summation and critique of the historiography of Islamic cities in 1987, exposing, among other things, how two lines (she characterizes as “isnads”) of historiography have generalized about the “Islamic city” on the basis of “tentative, place-specific comments and descriptions” of a few North African cities (most notably Fez) on the one hand, or on the basis of Damascus and Aleppo, on the other. Abu Lughod does not dismiss the question of whether or not there is an “Islamic city,” but argues for a turn away from an emphasis on isolated monumental constructions such as congregational mosques and madrasas toward an examination of the lived city. Reflecting on cities she studied in the past and her experience of contemporary cities, she argues that a decentralized, neighborly mode of urban governance, a legal system that favored litigation between neighbors about matters of privacy rather than the privileging of public space, and a concern for the seclusion of women, made cities in the Islamic world distinctive. Looking at cities as lived spaces, she provides a counterpoint to what she sees as a more static focus on the monuments of great patrons.[1]

Noreña’s essay is not simply concerned with categories but with processes. He investigates how and why Segobriga became Romanized and centers his attention on the role of local elites. The elites of Segobriga commanded wealth and sought to maintain and enhance their prestige; they had connections to the imperial Roman governing class and embraced Roman culture for instrumental purposes. Is there a correspondence between the concept of “Romanization” and the concept of “Islamization?” The Islamic conquests of the seventh and early eighth centuries, under the aegis of the first four caliphs (632–661 CE) and the Umayyads (661–750 CE), created a vast territorial empire, diverse in all the ways Noreña describes the Roman empire. Islamic rule transformed cities and towns and shaped the development of new settlements. Islamic historians have been interested in the ways in which a universally coherent and locally meaningful Islamic culture, broadly understood, as Noreña articulates, as a “complex of objects, practices, and beliefs characteristic of those who see themselves as belonging to a more or less coherent group,” achieved currency in the first centuries after the conquests. Scholars are interested in how caliphal/Islamic cultures maintained their “stickiness” (to employ the “glue” metaphor) after the decentralization and political fragmentation of the (Abbasid) Islamic empire beginning in the early ninth century. Who were the agents of “Islamization” and what were the processes?

Chase Robinson’s history of Mosul resonates with Noreña’s history of Segobriga in the way Robinson relates a similar connection between elite patronage, construction, and culture in the early Islamic context.[2] Mosul was remote from the Syrian center of power of the Umayyad caliphate, but was not, like Segobriga, in an agriculturally poor region. The presence of members of the imperial family in Mosul, too, marks a significant difference from Segobriga; this difference is relevant to Noreña’s specific argument about Segobriga’s exceptionalism, but what stands out in the two cases is a common enactment and materialization of empire in a specific locale. Marwanid Umayyads, acting as governors in the late seventh and early eighth century, transformed Mosul from a garrison city like Kufa (Mosul was originally settled by Kufans) into an Umayyad demesne and “imperial” city. Robinson describes the material changes to the city: the Marwanids built walls, paved streets, built canals, erected bridges, constructed and renovated mosques, established baths, and built an impressive palace. He writes:

The Kufan pattern of settlement, consisting of mosque and dar al-imara, [governor’s palace] was overshadowed by a Marwanid foundation, which featured a new and more ambitious language of elite legitimization: building on a large scale made Marwanid rule public (and impressively so) not simply because the Marwanids outbuilt the Kufans, but because their building was so expensive and ostentatious: the Manqusha palace replaced the dar al-imara in administrative terms, but it also reflected a new rhetoric of rule. The Marwanids, lacking both conquest experience and local roots, came to rule more regio, to consume and patronize, to acquire and display wealth.[3]

Robinson argues that Marwanid development of Mesopotamia, and Mosul, more particularly, conformed to a pattern. In Mesopotamia, as in Syria and Palestine, Marwanids supported elite compounds (qasrs) and hydraulic works dedicated to agricultural production. He observes of the physical development of the city: “several ingredients of nascent Mosuli urbanism are as strikingly Syro-Byzantine as they are anomalous within the early Islamic building traditions of Iraq,” and continues, “. . . insofar as Marwanid building was elite driven, we might expect a consistency of forms and styles, particularly since labor could move between Iraq and Syria. In short, history would make Mosul an Iraqi city but Marwanid rule in the city was in large part about making it Syrian.”[4]

The establishment of Umayyad rule in al-Andalus is described by contemporary sources in terms of Syrian models and linkages – the peninsula is “made Syrian” imaginatively even if monumental structures, institutions, and historical narratives are also informed by contingent needs and practices and local models. Noreña’s essay draws attention to the way legitimate power is imagined and enacted in terms of an original imperial center and developed dynamically by local elites in touch with the center and with elites in other Romanizing sites. In the Islamic context, we find examples of the persistent symbolic significance of allegiance to the caliphate, even when the bonds of allegiance between local and imperial elites were no longer active. In the history of al-Andalus and the far Maghrib, Umayyad rulers expressed their legitimacy in terms of dynastic lineage, looking back to the third caliph, Uthman, and the Umayyad caliphate in Syria. Before the eighth Umayyad ruler of al-Andalus, `Abd al-Rahman (III) al-Nasir li-Din Allah, declared himself caliph, the Umayyads of Cordoba ruled “as if” the Umayyad caliphate still existed, neither claiming the caliphal title nor acknowledging Abbasid legitimacy. After Umayyad rule in Iberia collapsed in civil war in the early eleventh century, a number of small kingdoms emerged (the ta’ifa kingdoms) which formally expressed allegiance to the vanquished Umayyad caliphate in the name of the caliph Hisham (II) al-Mu`ayyad, even after his death. The Almoravid ruler of the Maghrib and conqueror of al-Andalus, Yusuf ibn Tashufin, acknowledged the legitimacy of the Abbasid caliph and reportedly sought a deed of investiture from him, but developed his new capital and court in Marrakesh following the more regional model of the Andalusi-Umayyads. He and his successor, Ali ibn Yusuf, employed secretaries, judges, and jurists from al-Andalus schooled in that tradition, and commissioned objects for the congregational mosque from Andalusi craftsmen such as an inscribed wooden minbar (pulpit) and a lavishly illuminated Quran.[5]

Muslim rulers in the middle ages, across a vast geography, employed and adapted an idiom of legitimate Islamic rule comprised of concepts, terms, symbols, actions, texts, monuments, and displays harkening to contemporary and past caliphal models. Circulation of people, texts, and objects contributed to the living language and tradition of Islamic rule, even at a great distance from the center of power. If we think in terms of “invented traditions,” we can recognize how remoteness in time, as well as distance from “centers” could be traversed. It is worth bearing in mind that processes of Romanization in Segobriga and of Islamization in Mosul and al-Andalus involved elite cultivation of cultural memory. Elites define themselves and their communities in terms of an originary past and place and develop their authority in terms of the maintenance and interpretation of sacred and constitutive histories, texts, symbols, and rituals.

Islamization, of course, is not simply a matter of political culture (nor is Romanization), just as it is not independent of political power. Robinson’s analysis of Mosul’s transformation under Marwanid rule centers on a shift in power from tribal commanders to elite landholders and office holders as part of the city’s integration into an imperial system.[6] He observes that the elite families who sustained their status in Mosul generation after generation had their origins in the Marwanid period. In the broader arc of Islamic history, however, as Robinson observes in the closing of his book, local elites reproduced themselves, not through caliphal patronage or cultivated loyalty, but through the set of institutions and skills associated with the shari’a, “a body of law predicated upon a trans-regional academic culture.” Participation in this culture made local elites “the backbone of the Abbasid commonwealth.”[7]

Noreña and Robinson, in the cases of Segobriga and Mosul, demonstrate the role local elites played in the incorporation of cities (and not only cities but places with “wealthy, educated, well-connected elites”) into empires with evidence from the built environment. Underlying the analysis is a more or less developed recognition of the importance of mobility, networks, and modes of communication to processes of incorporation. Multiple networks linked individuals and communities across regions in the medieval Islamic world and played a vital role in promoting and maintaining, in distinctive forms and registers, recognizably common culture(s). Among these were commercial networks, communal networks among Christians and Jews, and Sufi networks. Networks formed by marriages and family relationships often bridged geographies, communities, and professions. The preponderant importance of ulama (religious scholars) in the Islamic world as proponents of culture complicates the correspondence between Romanization and Islamization, which brings us back to the question about how “Islam” shapes cities. The quest for knowledge, relationships between peripatetic teachers and students, learning traditions and practices, the copying and circulation of texts, all contributed to the “glue” that bound Muslim elites to each other locally and transregionally and to a culture that encompassed the high and the low. The conception of shari’a as universal law compelled transregional learning and framed and informed interpretation by local jurists and judges and everyday practices of Muslim social life. The ulama marked the organization of urban life and its built environment, along with local landholders and office holders—in many instances, families and social roles intertwined.

Noreña argues that the “stickiness” of monarchy may help explain why Segobriga became Romanized when it did, emphasizing the association of Romanization with political power and political culture. Arguably, the conquest of al-Andalus achieved the establishment of Muslim rule, the development of Islamic institutions, and a flourishing Islamic culture, over time, because of the “stickiness of monarchy” as well – the Umayyad rulers’ ability to tap into an existing (mutable and dynamic) caliphal idiom served the process of centralization under their rule as it promoted developing Islamic norms. After the original dynastic structures of power collapsed, local elites related to each other and to elites in important nodes in their networks in ways that had developed in the framework of Umayyad rule. Elites had, by the end of the Umayyad era, cultivated systems of cultural memory and structures of authority that sustained them as they continued to contribute to multiple intersecting and overlapping idioms, cultures, and imagined communities.


    1. Janet Abu-Lughod, “The Islamic City: Historical Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19 (1987): 155–76.return to text

    2. Chase F. Robinson, Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest: The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).return to text

    3. Ibid., 87.return to text

    4. Ibid.return to text

    5. Jonathan M. Bloom et al., The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998); “Qur’an Manuscript,” in al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 308.return to text

    6. Robinson, Empire and Elites, 88.return to text

    7. Ibid, 170–71.return to text