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Conversation with the English historian Justin Marozzi on Muslim metropolises

The English historian Justin Marozzi was born in 1970 and studied at Cambridge, among other places. As a journalist, he has worked for the BBC, the Financial Times and the Economist. In his six books published to date, he has devoted himself passionately to Islamic history and culture. For Baghdad. City of Peace, City of Blood he received the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature in 2015.

Islamic Newspaper: Dear Justin Marozzi, why “Islamic Empires” and not simply “Islamic Cities”?

Justin Marozzi: Because it is an epic tale of empires and cities. A story of great empires rooted in cities, through the fifteen centuries of Islam so far. So I wanted to focus on both aspects. Both reinforce each other, and both are equally fascinating to the historian.

Islamic Newspaper: And why “Islamic” empires? Were they not the empires of specific dynasties and tribes rather than “Islam” as an entity in itself?

Justin Marozzi: Islam is no more an entity than Christianity or Judaism, but we writers reserve the right to shorten things in order to get to the heart of big ideas or issues. The empires I write about were certainly dynastic for their duration, and most of them, I believe, were also Islamic. The fact that they could be multi-religious does not change the fact that they were controlled by Muslims and were largely Islamic in nature. 

Islamic Newspaper: You describe fifteen metropolises, each of which stands for one of the fifteen centuries so far since the Hijra, and all of which are still metropolises today. Have you been to all of them?

Justin Marozzi: In all but two. Mecca will remain a place of longing as long as non-Muslims are not allowed there. Isfahan is at the top of my to-do list!

Islamic Newspaper: Do you have a favourite?

Justin Marozzi: It’s impossible to say. I actually adore many of these cities, and they represent a very personal choice based on my personal experience. Istanbul is rightfully there as one of the greatest cities in the world. Cairo has been one of my eternal favourites since I first visited the city as a teenager in the late eighties, and I’ve kept coming back. Fez is beguiling, the largest car-free city centre on the planet, and I love the fact that its labyrinthine old town is too complicated for Apple Maps. Damascus is an ancient jewel, Cordoba fascinating and delightful, and Kabul is a place torn by tragedy in recent times. I have been coming there for 25 years, as a tourist and to work. And who could not be fascinated by embattled Jerusalem, by the ancient wonders of Samarkand, by the tenacity and culture of Baghdad?

Islamic Newspaper: Your father was born in Beirut…

Justin Marozzi: Yes, in 1938. Beirut is a special place for me, a city that once knew great splendour and now, tragically, knows even greater despair. Tripoli has been one of my very personal favourites since my father introduced me to it as a teenager. Over all the years I have returned there regularly, whether riding camels through the desert, reporting on the revolution or advising the post-Gaddafi governments.

Well, and Dubai and Doha? Their modern history will delight anyone interested in how cities grow and how cultures design themselves.

Islamic Newspaper: Some of “your” cities like Jerusalem, Damascus and Constantinople had a glorious past before Islam. Others, however, were either founded by Islamic rulers (such as Baghdad, Fez, Cairo and Dubai), or only became powerful under Islamic influence, such as Mecca. Are there differences between the two types of cities, and what are they? 

Justin Marozzi: I’m not sure that cities can be so strictly typified at all, whether by religious or other considerations. Of course, Samarkand has…

Islamic Newspaper: …the ancient Marakanda, which was once conquered by Alexander the Great…

Justin Marozzi: …a long history before Islam, it has changed its identity several times over the millennia and will probably continue to do so. Mecca also existed before Islam, and the Saudi regime has done its worst in recent years to erase that pre-Islamic past, which is an act of barbarism, chauvinism and insecurity.

I think the best companion to the fates of cities is Herodotus. In his “Nine Books of History” he declares that he will write “about the small cities of men no less than about the great ones”. For “most of them that were once great are now small; and those that were once small were great in my time.”

Islamic Newspaper: Cities as beacons of civilisation – this may have been true before modernity. But from today’s point of view, is it not rather a myth? Industrialised countries are characterised by rural, suburban structures; the global South, on the other hand – and much of the Islamic world – is urbanised but poor. What do you think about this?

Justin Marozzi: I think it depends on how you define “civilisation.” If by that you mean culture, music, education, technology and science, the arts, theatre and so on, then I would argue that cities are still the measure and centre of all that. And yes, there are cities that are past their prime and cities that are marching at the forefront of global development and innovation, but I believe that cities remain beacons of civilisation. 

Islamic Newspaper: But isn’t wallowing in a monumental and metropolitan past perhaps also part of the problems the Islamic world faces today? I mean, assuming Muslims indulge in that past at all?

Justin Marozzi: Well, as your question suggests, perhaps Muslims don’t revel in that past. Or maybe some do, but some don’t. But I think fairness demands that we point out here that the Muslim world – though by no means the whole Muslim world, because let’s not forget Muslim-majority countries outside the Middle East and North Africa, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which have not been affected by turmoil in the past decade – has suffered terrible crises in recent years; especially since the Arab Spring of 2011.

In moments like these, it is understandable, in a word human, to remember a happier, more glorious past. How to achieve it again? Well, that is the one million dollar question. And perhaps that past is not so easy to claim. 

Islamic Newspaper: What are your recommendations to the Islamic world today to overcome existing aberrations? 

Justin Marozzi: I don’t think it is for me to make any recommendations to the Muslim world. What I can offer are some observations based on historical research, personal experience and a few decades of writing and traveling. These observations include recognising the enormous role that tolerance, pluralism, openness to new ideas, passion for scientific progress and a suitably sceptical attitude towards the intrusion of religion into public life outside its proper sphere played in the supremacy that the Islamic world once enjoyed. 

But what is the proper sphere of religion, of Islam, in public life? This question – and the markedly different answers to it – touches the core of so many conflicts. Try explaining to the Taliban, for example, that religion should be a private matter between the individual and her or his god. See how far you get with that.

Islamic Newspaper: In your preface, you refer to Mesopotamia as the cradle of civilisation. Was the house of Islam, embodied in your fifteen cities, inadvertently built around this geopolitical centre? 

Justin Marozzi: To some extent we can say that, yes, but with the obvious and important caveat that there were earlier headquarters of the Islamic world, such as Mecca in the early years of Islam, then Damascus for almost a century. Stability of the Abbasid dynasty should also be mentioned….

Islamic Newspaper: …with Baghdad as its capital from 762 AD….

Justin Marozzi: …played an essential role in anchoring the power of Islam – along with military strength, culture, science, music and so on – in that part of the world. And don’t forget that the Abbasids remained in power for half a millennium, even though their caliphs had been in power long before the destructive arrival of Hülagüs…

Islamic Newspaper: …of the Mongol leader and grandson of Genghis Khan….

Justin Marozzi: …had become powerless puppets in 1258. 

Islamic Newspaper: Reading it, I got the impression of a coherent geopolitical bloc from Al-Andalus to Kabul, with a strong resemblance to what the US political scientist Brzezinski called the “Eurasian Balkans.” Would you speak of such a bloc for about 800 to 1800 AD?

Justin Marozzi: I don’t know about a “coherent geopolitical bloc.” That sounds like political science to me, and thank God (and with the utmost respect for political scientists) I am a historian, not a political scientist. Ever since I was asked to give a talk entitled Spatiotemporal Parameters and the Requirements of Orientational Substitutability as a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, I have had a deep aversion to imposing pseudoscientific theories on human behaviour.

But back to your question: how coherent can something be for a thousand years? Empires came and went during that time, borders changed, attitudes towards religious minorities ranged from enlightened tolerance to murderous pogroms. Can we compare the Abbasid Empire with the Ottoman Empire? We can perhaps say that the Islamic world, in the form of successive empires, set the tone culturally for much of this period, for much of this territory, but I would say that the decline began much earlier than 1800. My chapter on Isfahan in the 17th century is about one of the turning points in East-West relations. 

Islamic Newspaper: Was there something like a Pax Islamica, an Islamic peace order?

Justin Marozzi: Yes, but how long did it last? Many Muslims look back to the supposed Golden Age of early Islam, but which I would argue was incredibly volatile, not particularly peaceful and hardly representative of Islamic history. Of the four caliphs who immediately succeeded Muhammad….

Islamic Newspaper: … the so-called rightly guided caliphs…

Justin Marozzi: …three were assassinated, the last being Ali, whose death sparked a civil war and sectarian division….

Islamic Newspaper: …the split into Sunna and Shia….

Justin Marozzi: …which continues to this day. Yes, the early Abbasid Empire was able to establish something like a Pax Islamica, displaying a shimmering, sometimes decadent, wine-swilling and libertine culture that appalled more conservative Muslims then as much as their epigones do today. 

You could say the same of Timur and Tamerlan respectively in the 14th century, but more along the lines of Tacitus’ famous saying “they leave a desert and call it peace”. The Pax Timurica was marked by bloodbaths and slaughter on a horrific scale – by Muslims among themselves, mind you. One could say that it was Timur who gave jihad its bad name.

Islamic Newspaper: What could be the superpower of the 21st century? Saudi Arabia or rather Indonesia? Or maybe a Western country?

Justin Marozzi: Do we need an Islamic superpower for the 21st century? I’m not so sure. A superpower needs a cultural or a political-economic model that others around the world want to emulate. As a Brit, I find nothing attractive about the Chinese Communist Party, which denies all the freedoms that are essential to me as a Western individual.

But it doesn’t take a genius to see that successful economic growth and political stability – albeit through a creepy, repressive dictatorship – have a certain appeal around the world. How much does the rest of the world want to emulate Saudi Arabia, a repressive society in the hands of secular playboy princes and dictators on the one hand and chauvinistic, intolerant clerics on the other? That might work if you have a lot of oil in your ground, but it’s not really a great proposition for the rest of the world, is it?

Islamic Newspaper: Mr Marozzi, thank you for this interview.

Justin Marozzi: It was a pleasure. And now please buy the book!

* Justin Marozzi; Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization; Allen Lane (2019); hardcover; 464 pages; ISBN 978-0241199046; Price: 34.54 €

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