[VIEWPOINT]Islamic Cities Reflect the Idea of Equality

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[VIEWPOINT]Islamic Cities Reflect the Idea of Equality

A close look at our cities show they are highly structured along class lines. First, the road system is built to reflect such an order.

Thoroughfares, medium-sized streets and small alleys divide up the city, and all the important buildings stand on the thoroughfares.

The city is divided into the center, secondary center and the periphery, with a marked difference in the price of land between the three areas, and also in lifestyle.

Another gap-creating force is the zoning of land for commercial or residential use. And people's lives are affected invariably as to whether they live in the commercial or the residential districts.

Those working in the core of the city's commercial district may feel like first-class citizens; those living in the outskirts may feel second-class.

If we look back at the history of cities, the cities of ancient Egypt displayed similar class and power divisions. Buildings and space were allotted, according to their importance, in a linear configuration.

The more important the building or space, the closer it was to the central axis. And the nobler the person, the closer they lived to the axis. Such a structure allowed the rulers to maintain an iron grip over a society, comprising several different classes.

And such a structure was based on the importance the cities placed on logical and quantitative value-systems.

Even today, when urban planning is far advanced, it still rests on quantitative elements, such as population density, space availability and the flow of traffic. A city should be planned to be easily controlled.

There is the center, which serves as the nerve center, and then the symbolic monuments or representative places and buildings are placed appropriately.

Such a format is not restricted to European cities. Since new highways have made inroads into our traditional cities and towns, our society has rezoned and replanned our cities to reflect the thoroughfare versus the alleys, the center versus the periphery.

The booming satellite cities of Bundang and Ilsan are reflections of this trend.

However, the cities of Third World countries remain configured as they had been some several hundred years ago, and there residents retain their traditional way of life.

The most telling are the cities of Islamic countries.

Under Islam, everyone is equal before Allah. There are no classes, either in the civil sector or in the religious sector.

Take the Muslim mosque as an example.

The mosque does not have altars or sanctuaries as seen in the Christian churches.

Only a large hall serves as the place of faith and everyone in the hall is equal. The same idea is reflected in the structure of the cities of Islamic countries.

Their cities do not have a square or a central district. There is no division of commercial and residential areas.

Houses, shaped in a square with courtyards in the middle are huddled like the combs in a beehive.

The roads are a labyrinth, where a stranger would find it difficult to find his or her way about without a native guide.

The labyrinth of small roads and alleys is the bloodline that intertwines and connects the lives of the people.

The addition of a cluster of several houses does not jar or disfigure the city's configuration.

It is a city where the individual elements are more important than the whole, and where only Allah rules.

It is a plural society and a city of pluralistic democracy.

Conquering one of these cities would not be an easy task because their centers are evenly dispersed.

The city of Fez in Morocco, a typical Islamic city, once was invaded by France. But unable to conquer a city of maze and labyrinth, France had to settle for building a city nearby.

Unlike Western cities, which can be conquered once the center or a symbolic point is taken, with Islamic cities, one must conquer the various centers.

Sitting atop a city whose key elements are equal may very well be impossible.

The labyrinth of small roads and alleys is the bloodine that intertwines and connects the lives of people.

by Seung Hyo-sang

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