Autumn Term Meeting (11 December 2008)

Discussing Cities

Autumn Term Meeting, 11 December 2008
Farah al Nakib (SOAS), Sanil Kumar (SOAS), Modjtaba Sadria (AKU-ISMC)

Discussing Cities is a forum which gives scholars working on cities the opportunity to come together to share their work and ideas.

Each term, the Discussing Cities​ forum invites scholars to discuss cities from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives. The forum also explores the methodology of other researchers, while taking into account their work and experiences. The autumn term meeting of the Discussing Cities forum was held at AKU-ISMC on 11 December 2008.

This meeting of Discussing Cities included Farah al-Nakib (SOAS), who spoke about urban development and social change in Kuwait City. Sanil Kumar (SOAS) also attended and introduced his work, which examines the politics and society of early Sultanate Delhi. Modjtaba Sadria (AKU-ISMC) explored the idea of the cities as a lens through which one can observe social and cultural change in Muslim contexts.

Space, Urban Development, and Social Change in Kuwait City, 1896 - 1986: The Case of the Hadhar Community

Farah al-Nakib's presentation, Space, Urban Development and Social Change in Kuwait City, 1896 - 1986: The Case of the Hadhar Community, examined the affects of urban development on social change. She discussed how urban development has influenced the transformation of Kuwait from a nineteenth century small fishing town to a twentieth century modern city.

More specifically, al-Nakib's research gives an overview of the changes that took place within the Hadhar community of Kuwait (i.e. the old residents of the city) from the pre-oil to oil periods. Her research illustrates the relationship between space, urban development and social change.

According to al-Nakib, the urban history of Kuwait can generally be divided into two periods: the pre-oil and oil periods, which both encompass their own phases. The first phase in the development of Kuwait City occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this time Kuwait grew from a small town, to a vibrant and prosperous city whose inhabitants adopted mercantile and ship-building occupations. Also, due to the strategic location of the town, it developed into one of the most important port-cities of the Gulf.

al-Nakib's research gives an overview of the changes that took place within the Hadhar community of Kuwait from the pre-oil to oil periods.

The demolition of the town wall in 1920 was an important stage in the development of the city. The construction of this wall had created a concrete division (for the first time) between the townspeople (the Hadhar) and the nomadic people outside of the city. Following this, Kuwait underwent an economic recession. This period of recession ended with the development of the oil economy in the 1950s.

"As far as the urban development of Kuwait goes, the oil period actually begins in 1951 with the drawing of the first master plan of the city; this led to the pattern of urban planning and development that took place over the coming decades," al-Nakib noted.

Following this, the Kuwaiti government brought in a variety of different urban planning companies to develop Kuwait into a 'modern' city. The city of Kuwait was changed dramatically by this development, since the state essentially destroyed the old city to make way for the new one.

More importantly, al-Nakib's research examines the impact of the changing structure of Kuwait City on the social and political dynamics of urban life in the transition from the pre-oil to oil periods. Her research aims to explore the extent to which social and political identities and the interactions and structures of life have transformed as a result of the rapid changes that took place to the urban landscape of Kuwait City.

"One part of my research, therefore, seeks to develop a reconstruction or an ethnographic micro-history of urban life in pre-oil Kuwait… This involves an examination of the physical morphology of the old town, as well as a survey of the social, economic and political networks and institutions that define day-to-day urban life before oil."

The second part of al-Nakib's research focuses on the early years of urbanisation, from 1951 to the middle of the 1980s. This research looks at the combination of state planning policies and initiatives, which, in only a few decades, transformed Kuwait from a small maritime town into a crowded, sprawling city.

"Most importantly, my research seeks to assess how the social and political structures of urban life changed with the advent of oil urbanisation as a result of such drastic changes to the urban form of the city."

By exploring the urban development of Kuwait city from the pre-oil through to oil periods, al-Nakib seeks to identify the impact on social, political and economical structures, particularly on certain social groups.

Reconstructing the Politics and Society of Early Sultanate Delhi

Sanil Kumar provided an overview of his research looking at the history of the politics and society of Sultanate-era Delhi.

Sanil Kumar's session, Reconstructing the Politics and Society of Early Sultanate Delhi, provided an introduction to Kumar's work that investigates the history of the politics and society of Muslim-ruled Delhi. This session also explored the development of Muslim communities generally.

Beginning with an introduction to the description of contemporary Delhi, Kumar explained that the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan had major consequences: the memories, roots and affiliations of Delhi residents to their past were completely destroyed. Furthermore, the arrival of new migrants, who had no memory of, or affiliation with the city, had a significant impact on the development of Delhi.

Sanil Kumar's work concerns the history of the early Muslim community and the early Muslim state. Kumar regards the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled India from 1206 to 1526, as a good chronicle of change in the city.

The second part of Kumar's research concerns the nature of Muslim communities. If, Kumar argues, it can be believed that the ruling elite of the Dehli Sultanate were slaves, by implication they were considered isolated groups of people. These ruling elites, whether Hindus or Muslims, were not considered to be part of the people that they governed. In effect, this was a society that was reclusive and driven into itself.

In order to look at the nature of this Muslim state, Kumar moved away from Persian chronicles, and towards other kinds of materials, including Sufi materials. These conversations between Sufi teachers and their students were not intended to provide scholars with information about the era - the aim of these sources was to arouse interest in the protagonist. Nevertheless, these materials also provide clues which help to reveal more about the social realities of that era.

The third element of Kumar's research focuses on the identification of a spatial dimension in Sultanate-era Delhi. By identifying this spatial dimension, key actors from this society can be carefully examined.

"I identified two very different kinds of sites - the Qutub Minar mosque and minaret, the oldest congregation mosque in Delhi, and the city of Tughlakabad which was constructed from 1320 - 1325. These were interesting sites to look at in order to work out the making of Muslim society."

Through an exploration of these sites, Kumar explored competition and constitution in relation to the Muslim community. In the case of the mosque, for example, Kumar explained that it had been built and rebuilt more than once in its entire history; this was due to a growing and changing urban community.

The reconstruction of the mosque was very important in the defining of power structures in the community. However, due to the misleading nature of the various inscriptions, this reconstruction process has created some confusion as to who actually constructed the mosque.

"This leads me back to many important questions - such as what was the purpose of the construction of the mosque. Was it to socialise a body of people into becoming good Muslims? All these statements were there to teach them how to be Muslims."

Kumar hopes that through his research he can use instances from these two sites, together with historical research on the making of the urban literati, to puncture what are often monolithic conceptions of the Muslim state. Through this, Kumar argues, we will not only have access to a more historicised understanding of the makings of these local societies, but it will also enable them to be positioned spatially, which helps to add another layer to our understanding of these places.

Cities: Social and Cultural Change in Muslim Societies

Professor Modjtaba Sadria provided an overview of AKU-ISMC's research in the field of social and cultural change within the context of cities

In his presentation, Modjtaba Sadria, AKU-ISMC Professor, introduced AKU-ISMC's research theme: cities, social and cultural change in Muslim contexts.

Beginning with an introduction to the different cities in which he has lived and worked, Sadria explained the importance of cities as sites for social and cultural change. Sadria's presentation also elaborated on AKU-ISMC's research field, Understanding the Processes of Change in Muslim Societies. This research area, which explores cities and social and cultural change in Muslim contexts, allows for more nuanced perspectives on the ways that societies and cultures have changed over time in urban settings and in a diverse range of contexts.

Sadria discussed a diverse range of issues relating to cities, social and cultural changes, sharing a number of contemporary examples with the audience. These examples included gated communities in Cairo and class-based segregation in Dhaka.

Through the introduction of a diverse range of research being undertaken by different scholars, Discussing Cities provides a forum for scholars and students from a variety of disciplines to reflect on synergies with their own work. A collaborative initiative of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and AKU-ISMC, Discussing Cities is is a space for thinking, research and discussion of the issues of lived and built environments.

Online Resources

  • Discussing Cities
  • Professor Modjtaba Sadria's profile

External Links*

  • School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

* Links to sites does not imply endorsement of the contents of those sites. AKU-ISMC is not responsible for the content of external sites.​​