Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, author of the notable memoir The Battle for Home (Thames & Hudson, 2016) and a past contributor to Renovatio, explores how cities and buildings might be rebuilt in the aftermath of conflict, crisis, or financial depression in her new book, Building for Hope. Al-Sabouni organizes her new book around a set of five “principal fears”—the fear of death, of need, of treachery, of loneliness, and of boredom—that she believes express human vulnerability and shape “how we address the question of belonging” and, ultimately, how we build our homes. This excerpt comes from her second chapter, on the fear of need, in which she introduces the concept of the Factory Syndrome, which has frayed the social fabric of industrial cities across the modern world, before applying enduring insights about urbanization by the fourteenth-century Muslim polymath Ibn Khaldun to our current crisis of community.
How, then, can cities thrive while maintaining healthy trade connections with their surroundings? International trade came into being with the birth of civilization: the ancient system of connection between trading partners was the Silk Road, along which goods travelled and where they rested at certain hubs. The size and destiny of any ancient empire was closely linked to the Silk Road and its life. Because merchandise was not mass-produced, urban centers generally kept things in balance by trading seasonally while remaining more or less faithful to the permanent local customer.
This arrangement was affected by all sorts of considerations: weather conditions, the safety of convoys, the threat of nomad raids. Ancient Persia faced such threats from the north, where the nomads of the steppes were based, from the Black Sea all the way to Central Asia and Mongolia. At the time, these tribes had a reputation for savagery and cannibalism. The Chinese too had recognized the threat that they posed.
Traders had to pay ransoms to ensure the safety of their trade. These payments included rice, wine and textiles, but the most important commodity was the one that gave the trade route its name: silk. For the nomads of the steppes, silk was about status, both socially and politically. So devastating was the effect of nomadic raids that Rome and Persia, who were bitter rivals at the time, made a truce in order to face their common foe. They collaborated in building a protective wall extending from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Despite this, Rome was sacked in AD 410 at the hands of those nomadic tribes, and the Dark Ages began.
The question of the urbanization of nomads was discussed as early as the 14th century by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldoun, widely regarded as the founder of modern sociology. He discussed ‘umran—urbanization—as a process of human settlement. The noun al-‘umran comes from the root verb ‘amara (to furnish, to give life, to build); it also refers to any act that begets flourishing and settlement.
For Ibn Khaldoun, ‘ilm al-‘umran (the science of urbanization and settlement) was the true study of human society. Starting from the basics, he considered nomadic life to be the default position of human communities and the origin of every settlement. The perfect minimalism of nomadic existence in comparison to urban people meant they were closer to the good, more courageous and more intensely alive; not “contaminated with the abundance of urban living.” Abundance brings softness and delicacy, making people too docile, too tolerant and too easily governed—and then, Ibn Khaldoun suggests, they may lose sight of their natural rights.
But the real revelation of Ibn Khaldoun’s work is the concept of ‘asabiyya: the tendency to live tightly bound to one’s own kin and blood. This is the binding force in Bedouin communities, the force behind tribal thinking. For Ibn Khaldoun, it is also the driving force behind kinship—a necessary ingredient in human society, without which there would be no real incentive to aggregate or collaborate. Once detached from the conditions of nomadic society, however, the powerful impetus of ‘asabiyya cannot last indefinitely; therefore, those who settle down to form a government in a single place will not establish a regime that endures.
Ibn Khaldoun regards ‘asabiyya as both the seed from which nations spring and the seed of their destruction. Division and conflict are inflamed because of it; borders are eroded because of it. The only antidote, he argues, is religion, which turns the blind ‘asabiyya from kin to stranger, from the inner kinship group to the outer community. Ibn Khaldoun admits that ‘asabiyya is a quality held in disrepute in Islam, but he argues that the object of this disparagement is not the quality itself, but its misuse.
There is no dispute that one of the main accomplishments of Islam in the Arabian peninsula was to put an end to destructive tribal conflicts over the most trivial issues—a verse of poetry, a love affair, a horse race—which had their origins in ‘asabiyya. Religion offered an alternative source of self-esteem and human collaborative spirit, rather than kin and lineage: piety, the shared obedience to a vigilant God. However, Ibn Khaldoun was right in his analysis of the dynamic by which nomadic life is governed, and he gave us a rare insight into the nomadic mindset.
He also understood that the transition from nomadic reliance on kinship ties to the contractual bonds that hold a city together was inseparable from the religion that grows between neighbors when they are settled in a single place. Islam and Christianity both recognize that the person you must care for is not necessarily your cousin or a member of your tribe or even of your faith, but your neighbor—the stranger you come across, the one who is there in your path, in need of your help or seeking your cooperation.
In the ancient world, cities were often assemblies of people who knew each other. But the city evolved under the impact of trade to become too large for that kind of intimacy, and indeed to become a society of strangers. Yet it was a society at peace—and what made this possible? Ibn Khaldoun is surely right: religion. Not any religion, however; rather, the religion which turns all encounters, even those with strangers, into encounters of a personal kind. And this happens easily when you believe that there is a single God watching over you all, that his gentleness and compassion are present in your life and you are being asked at this moment to share them with the stranger whom you face. The very quality that we noted as distinctive in the local as opposed to the Factory economy—market deals that are also personal relations—is promoted by the religion that grows in the city.