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1. Making a Space for Everyday Ritual and Practice

1. Muslim Space and the Practice
of Architecture

A Personal Odyssey

Gulzar Haider

In 1960, courtesy of Fulbright-Hays, I was sent from Lahore to the University of Pittsburgh for six weeks to be “oriented” to American cultural, political, and educational systems. I was assigned to a host family, the Waynes, who were active in the YMCA and numerous other voluntary organizations. The Waynes took it upon themselves to help this stranger see some fascinating sides of America. Socially active Christians, they were also devout Americans. They took me to different church services, and I naturally asked if there were mosques in Pittsburgh. Mr. Wayne offered to take me to one, a building he confessed to not knowing too much about.

As we turned onto a minor street on the University of Pittsburgh campus, he pointed to a vertical neon sign that said in no uncertain terms “Syria Mosque.” Parking the car, we approached the building. I was fascinated, albeit with some premonition. I was riveted by the cursive Arabic calligraphy on the building: la ghalib il-Allah, “There is no victor but Allah,” the well-known refrain of Granada’s Alhambra (fig. 5). Horseshoe arches, horizontal bands of different colored bricks, decorative terra-cotta—all were devices to invoke a Moorish memory. Excitedly, I took a youthful step towards the lobby, when my host turned around and said, “This is not the kind of mosque in which you bend up and down facing Mecca. This is a meeting hall–theater built by Shriners, a nice bunch of people who build hospitals for crippled children and raise money through parades and circuses. They are the guys who dress up in satin baggies, embroidered vests, and fez caps.”[1]

Figure 5. The Shriners’ theater known as the “Syria Mosque,” Pittsburgh, Pa. Photograph by Gulzar Haider.
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For a few seconds I felt as if the Waynes were playing a strange practical joke on me. And then I realized they were quite serious, composed, and a touch jubilant at their find. Two Americans and one Pakistani in search of a mosque had comically ended up in front of an architectural joke, a tasteless impersonation. A big poster in the lobby promised a live performance of Guys and Dolls later that month, proceeds to go to the Syria Mosque campaign for a children’s hospital.

We returned to a restaurant on the campus. From my seat, I could see the tall, spirelike building called the “Cathedral of Learning” through the glass, and a reflection of the “Syria Mosque” superimposed on it. With the passing years, I have realized that it was in that restaurant that the inherent ironies of the Muslim condition in the West, as expressed through architecture, got branded on my heart. Cathedral, a word from the sacred lexicon, had been appropriated by the university for its tallest and most celebrated building, aiming at the sky and daring it to open its gates and surrender its secrets. There were chapels for some denominations on the campus, but this “cathedral” was the seat of a new faith: the secular-humanistic pursuit of knowledge. And, by extension, the tall towers marking the heart of the American city were “cathedrals of Capitalism.”

And there was the “Syria Mosque,” emblem of a pirated tradition used by the pirates to identify their “secret” brotherhood. Though charity, service, and volunteerism legitimized the Shriners, they could not erase their insensitive and callous misuse of another religion’s artistic vocabulary and symbolic grammar. This was the “oriental obsession” of the otherwise “puritanical” Europeans and Americans (Sweetman 1988). How was “Islamic architecture” represented in the West? Beyond the Shriners, there were movie theaters (fig. 6), casinos with names like “Gardens of Allah” and “Taj Mahal” (fig. 7), and—summing up the fantasies of the luxurious and exotic—the 1920s planned city of Opa-locka, Florida, whose vision sprang from a multimillionaire’s fascination with the film The Thief of Baghdad. In Opa-locka, everything had a dome and minaret (Luxner 1989).

Figure 6. Movie theater, Atlanta, Ga. Photograph by Gulzar Haider.
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Figure 7. Trump casino: the Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, N.J. Photograph by Gulzar Haider.
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I brought to my encounter with this American landscape an architectural ambivalence of my own, articulated as the draw of “modernity” against “tradition” in every sphere. My father had already made the choice to leave our ancestral home in the countryside, a choice redolent with symbolism, since that home had adjoined the shrine of a legendary saint whose descendants we were. My father chose to migrate to Lahore, a city of schools and colleges, of progress and promise for his sons, and the seat of the British governor of Punjab. There the “indigenous” was old and terminally ill, and the “alien” was modern and exemplary. We lived in Mughalpura but aspired to move to Modeltown. There were the Shalimar Gardens but we preferred to see the white-dressed white gents and ladies playing tennis in the Lawrence Gardens. There was Shah-‘Alam bazaar selling essence of sandalwood, but we felt special buying lime cordial from the Tolinton Market. Study of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic was a refuge of romantics or the last resort of the rejected; English was the essential requirement for those aspiring to serve the Raj. Kashmiri Bazaar led only to the then-decaying Wazir Khan Mosque. But the Mall, with its Government College, Mayo School of Arts, YMCA, Lloyds Bank, Imperial Bank, Regal Cinema, Charing Cross, Victoria Monument, and Aitcheson College was the road to the bright future. “Modern,” “European,” “British” and, later, “American”—in general, “foreign”—these words were the stuff that dreams were made of.

India got its freedom, and Pakistan came into being. Shakespeare Lane became Koocha-e-Saadi, one poet giving way to another, but the seeking heart did not change its bearings from Stratford to Shiraz. Thus, despite my heritage, I intellectually grew up, with much curiosity and some guilt, on the books and magazines of the British Council, United States Information Service, and Goethe Institute reading rooms. It was there that I met Christopher Wren and was mesmerized by the drawings in Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture(1896). It was there that a book showed me for the first time the grand strokes of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s New Delhi. I was quite willing to trade Shah Jahan’s old “genie” for the new genie of the Raj.

Perhaps the most precious gift I received was the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and, through him, the works of Louis Sullivan and the words of Walt Whitman. I can still recall the moment I “found” architecture. I had barely picked up a little book, Towards a New Architecture, by Le Corbusier (1927), when these words, “Eyes Which Do Not See,” leapt at me:

A great epoch has begun.

There exists a new spirit.

There exists a mass of work conceived in the new spirit; it is to be met with particularly in industrial production.

Architecture is stifled by custom.

The “styles” are a lie.

Style is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind which has its own special character.

Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.

Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it.

In the title “Eyes Which Do Not See” I sensed a resonance with the qur’anic parable of ignorance. And in the lines I sensed the clue to knowledge. Youth had found its manifesto! Already skeptical of “tradition,” now repelled by the casual use of “Islamic architecture” I encountered abroad, I wanted to be part of what was new. I resolved to resist dream makers like the pious South Asian Muslim in Miami who had retrieved a discarded pressure tank, placed it on a flat-roofed tract house as a “dome,” and topped off the whole thing with a crescent.

Wimbledon and the Isna Mosque in Plainfield: Interior Realities

When I reached the West, like the immigrants described in Regula Qureshi’s essay (this volume), I welcomed the company of fellow Muslims at prayer in makeshift settings. It was the practice that mattered in my case, as no doubt in many others, a practice promised to my mother when I left home. En route to America, on my very first Friday in the West, I prayed in a small English house on a corner lot in Wimbledon. There was no mihrab niche, just a depression in a side wall, a cold fireplace with a checkerboard border of green and brown ceramic tiles. A small chandelier with missing pieces of crystal was suspended asymmetrically in a corner. A rickety office chair with a gaudy plush rug draped over its back acted as the minbar pulpit. The prayer lines were oblique to the walls of the rooms and the congregation overflowed into the narrow hall and other nooks and corners. Was there anything mosquelike about this building, except that people had sincerely spread their mats in a common orientation, willingly performed their sajud in unison, and listened to someone’s sermon, accepting him as their imam?

Via the Syria Mosque, the Cathedral of Learning, and a few Fridays in transit I arrived at the old Georgian campus of the University of Illinois. About twenty of us prayed in the Faculty Club in the Illinois Union Building. We rearranged the furniture, spread rolls of green towel cloth at an estimated skewed angle, and listened to the sermon of a mathematician from Jordan, our “imam of the week.” I was awed by his audacity in presenting Divine Unity as a sphere and in talking of Asma’ al-Husna, Allah’s Beautiful Names (see also n. 5 below), as an ordered state of points defining that sphere. As I recall this, I wonder whether he was—as I would later become—a lost son seeking authentication, in this case through his grandfather’s philosophical geometry.

Soon I felt at home in a community of Muslim students. My turn to lead the prayers finally had to come. In my maiden sermon, I recited those verses of the Qur’an wherein God affirms Abraham and Ishmael’s building of the Ka‘ba as a House for Him.[2] Being away from the elders of my own culture, I felt safe in proposing my own exegesis: that the verse alluded to the sacred nature of architecture in support of the Divine commandments. And, by logical extension, I concluded that architecture could potentially be idolatrous when committed in defiance of the commandments. By 1963, a continental organization had been founded on our campus, the Muslim Student Association of USA and Canada. At its second annual convention, I again spoke, this time on nothing less than the architectural heritage of Muslims.

That year also, I was given permission to substitute for one of my studio projects the design of a mosque in North America. My understanding of Muslim architectural tradition was based on some memories of Lahore,[3] a childhood trip to Agra, and my recent visual encounters with six volumes of A. U. Pope and Phyllis Ackerman’s A Survey of Persian Art (1938–39). But tradition was definitely not a burning issue for a student “going abroad for studies in America.” Our dizzyingly optimistic, forward-looking American campus environment did not present the traditional versus the modern even as a legitimate question. Old was of interest only to historians. Old was the “problem.”

Thus the shift of orientation of the Masjid-e-Shah against the great maidan of Isfahan was posed as one of the problems that needed a new solution. I confronted the problem by eliminating it. My prayer hall was circular in plan: a symbol of “unity,” and free from the demands of orientation. I solved the problem of columns by using a single inverted dish-thin shell. I took the pool from the courtyard, made it much larger, and let my mosque float in it like a lotus. Finally, I proposed a bridge that was symbolically the path from the worldly—the profane parking lot—to the otherworldly, the prayer hall. Inventive energy has its own obsessive momentum, so I cut a laser slice of space right through the circular wall of the prayer hall to create a mihrab ending in the garden beyond. Perhaps the most daring gesture was to propose large-scale calligraphy on the top of the dome. The idea was to let the modern man in flight look down and recognize that this was a contemporary mosque in the West.

The project was graded excellent, and I was sincerely proud of my achievement. Three decades later, I am grateful to God that there was no government, nor any other patron around me, to help me commit this crime on a real site. There are grand projects of that decade across the Muslim world, designed when young architects who had studied in Sydney or London or New York returned to build their modernity-driven, metamorphosed mosques. These are places that distort the imagination of the one who prays. Modernity, in the design context, was too self-consumptive, self-driven, ever-changing, to be relevant to the timeless protocol of the human body on a humble prayer mat engaged in qiyam (standing), ruku‘ (bowing), sajud (prostration).…May God be Merciful to the one who recognizes his mistakes.

My next mosque design was in 1968–69, after I had earned my bachelor’sdegree in architecture from Illinois. This was a joint project with Mukhtar Khalil, another Muslim student. We entered the competition for the Grand National Mosque in Islamabad (now the well-known Faisal Mosque). The site and the beautiful surroundings, complex program, and grandiose scale encouraged us to provide an equally heroic design response. We conceived an Islamic “St. Mark’s”: a trapezoidal setting, with educational blocks on three sides, a horizontal plaza with geometric stone patterns, and an artificially twisted entrance to create an element of surprise. The mihrab area was a round sculpted form inspired by Ronchamp. And further to avoid any remote chance that someone might mistake our building for a “traditional” structure, we proposed a minaret tower four hundred feet high and fifty feet in diameter, visible from the peaks of the Murree Hills, covered with turquoise-glazed tiles, containing a library and a museum on the model of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. St. Mark’s, Ronchamp, the Guggenheim, and a heavy dose of abstract calligraphy, all in one project! The sirens of modernity had cast their spell. It was my good fortune that the design got eaten by termites in a Post Office warehouse.

For about ten years I struggled with various Muslim communities in search of an opportunity to design a place of prayer. It was a period of trials and professional wanderings (Haider 1990). Nothing is more telling of the communal fragmentation of ideas and images than the kinds of mosques people carry in their minds. Recalling my encounters, I have sometimes felt like a volunteer nurse in a room full of Alzheimer’s patients at various stages of their condition. My own mind being a page with far too many images stamped on it, I have always empathized with community luminaries heatedly debating what their mosque should look like—not infrequently illustrated by pages torn from a mosque calendar offered by a Muslim bank or an airline. Usually the majority side favors a modern style and the other aims for recognizable “conventional” imagery.

In 1977–78, while spending a sabbatical year in Saudi Arabia and traveling through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, I saw the destructive and alienating force of architecture in the name of progress. I started to experience a certain ecology of architecture, literature, belief, philosophy, commerce, culture, and craft still operating in the old bazaars behind the modern façades of the cities I visited. I began seeing architecture as a formative element in culture rather than a mute expression of it—an isolated bit of gallery artwork to be reviewed, honored, bought, sold, and collected.

In 1979, I was invited to design a national headquarters mosque in Plainfield, Indiana for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which had evolved from the Muslim Student Association founded sixteen years earlier. It was the same MSA that had started at my university in Urbana, and the person who invited me was Mukhtar Khalil, my co-contestant in the Islamabad mosque competition of 1968. The invitation was an honor I received with many self-doubts. I recalled Abraham’s House for God, and started my search for a place of prayer for those who, at home or in “occidental exile,”[4] turn their faces to that Blessed House in Mecca and recite:

Lo I have turned my face
Firmly and truly
Toward Him who willed
The heavens and the earth
And never shall I assign
Partners to Him.
(Qur’an 6:79)
I was also very intrigued by the Divine attributes expressed in two of the names of God, “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” I wanted to find in them a special wisdom for the designer, who must create but not confront, offer but not attack, and yet withal express the profound in a language understandable and pleasing to the listener.[5]

To distinguish the exterior from interior, I chose to veil this mosque, evoking the need for meaningful and purposeful dissimulation. I thought of my building as an oyster whose brilliance and essence were internal, while the expressed form sought human ecological harmony, modesty, even anonymity. This was the period, after all, when I had gotten used to friends Americanizing my name to “Golz” and my wife’s from Santosh to “Sandy.”

In my design, I resisted Western exploitation of the visual symbols of Islamic “tradition” rather than the tradition itself. During the nineteenth century and the prewar twentieth, Muslim reality had been observed and projected through many distorting prisms. There were paintings, romantic fictions, exotic travelogues, and, later, circuses, movies, movie theaters, magic potions, exotic foods, and music—all capitalizing on immediate expectations of magic fortunes and paradisiacal sensuality. From Las Vegas and Atlantic City “pleasures for sale” to Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” to Shriners’ temples, all had exploited, with gluttonous appetite, the symbols associated with the Muslim past (Said 1978).

The project was built and has been used since 1982 (fig. 8). It has no expressed dome, although inside there are three domes creating an unmistakable space of Islamic prayer. Those who have been inside are struck by the “mosqueness” of it all. It remains an enigma, however, especially to those Muslims who are used to seeing mosques and not praying in them. Like the makeshift mosque in Wimbledon, what mattered in the Plainfield mosque was the practice—in this case intended to be fostered by the design—within.

Figure 8. The Islamic Society of North America headquarters mosque, Plainfield, Ind. Photograph by Gulzar Haider.
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The Bai‘tul Islam Mosque, Toronto, and Back to Wimbledon: Externalizing Islam

The demand for what is seen as visual authenticity in the mosque, however, has intensified over the past decade. On the one hand, this is a natural sign of the maturation of the first wave of postwar immigrants, many of whom came for education and then settled for better economic and professional opportunities. On the other hand, this is also a sign that efforts at “melting into the pot” have given way to assertion of a Muslim identity as a better alternative. There are also global movements afoot that have given Muslims in the diaspora a sense of identity and linkage as part of the umma, or worldwide Muslim community. Some have now started to express “dome and minaret envy,” in relation, for example, to the Plainfield mosque.

These years have also been a period of intense energy in architectural-academic discourse as modernism started to come under questioning and later open attack. The word postmodernism came to evoke everything from zealous commitment to ridicule. New terms such as postfunctionalism,poststructuralism,deconstructivism,logocentricism, and even reconstructivism made their appearance.

Even so, the postfunctionalist search for “meaning” and the return of “philosophical inquiry” through architecture has been timely for the emergent discourse on sacred architecture. For Muslims, there has been much discussion about the value of the Islamic heritage within a technologically homogenizing world. The symposia of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, in particular, have brought the protagonists of tradition and those of modernity around the same table under the mostly civilizing gaze of some philosophers and itinerant sages. These symposia have taught me to treat my most cherished architectural conceptions with a humbling doubt.

For me, the academic inquisition against modernism has provided numerous opportunities. As the design canons of modernist minimality and pure composition have come under attack, there has been a new air of respectability for the study of ornament, craft, tradition, form, symbol, text, inscriptions, and, above all, the philosophical underpinnings of architectural intentions. There is now legitimacy for seeking to know culture though the direct experience of art—“tactile knowing,” as we ended up calling it. It was the interpretive drawing of carpets, miniatures, and gardens, as well as the recitation of poetry, that opened up Islamic culture for many of my Canadian students.

In 1987, almost ten years after the ISNA mosque, I received a commission to design a large mosque in Toronto. By then, numerous North American Muslim communities had shown a desire for assertion through architecture, rather than anonymity through dissimulation. This desire was particularly keen in this case: the mosque was to be the national headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, a community declared out of Islamic bounds by act of the Government of Pakistan in 1974, which now, quite simply, wanted all the architectural help it could get to express its Islamic presence in Canada (Haider 1990). I was advised to reject this commission, lest I risk my future and never get another job, or even risk my hereafter by “partnership in the crime of Ahmadiyyat.” I am not an Ahmadi Muslim, and I am not qualified to make pronouncements on Islam or meter others’ Islamicity. I am convinced, however, that I have designed a mosque, and that what are performed there are prayers in the finest tradition of Islam.

In designing the Toronto mosque, I used the prayer rug as a conceptual inspiration, as well as a source of formal and decorative discipline. Conceptually, the prayer rug, as it is spread out and qibla-directed, defines the elemental place of prayer. As the believer positions and orients his or her body on it and goes through various stages of salat, the Islamic ritual prayer, a place-space is defined, in the physical and temporal as well as experiential sense, that has all the essential attributes of a mosque. As the prayerful body interacts with the qibla-directed Cartesian planes established by the prayer rug, so the collectivity, the parallel rows of the community of believers, resonates with the architectural space of the mosque. All design decisions, especially the proportions of the space, the pattern and the placement of fenestration, the sequential placement of entrance and arrival, tile patterns and carpet layout are aimed at achieving this resonance. The prayer rug rises out of its horizontal plane and wraps itself around the space.

This mosque started with the study of prayer rugs; and its final act of design resulted in a prayer rug that has been sand-etched in the glass of the doors marking the entrance to the prayer hall. If the Plainfield mosque might seem like a corporate headquarters to the freeway observer driving by, the Toronto mosque boldly asserts an Islamic profile, reclaiming the conventional minaret and dome for their appropriate ends (fig. 9).

Figure 9. The Bai‘tul Islam mosque, Toronto. Photograph by Gulzar Haider.
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Twenty-five years after the first encounter, I had a chance to visit Wimbledon again. The house-mosque was now wrapped with a glazed finish; arched windows sat squeezed into what were at one time rectangular openings; the parapet had what seemed like an endless line of sharp crescents; and there were a number of token minaret domes, whose profile came less from any architectural tradition than from the illustrations of the “Arabian Nights.” By now, they, too, had felt compelled to “Islamize” that sometime English house.

My innocent but bizarre encounter with the “Syria Mosque” has never left me. Like a plow in the field, it turns inside out what would otherwise have been quiet, sedate, but decaying chambers of my mind. I have never ceased raising questions about what a North American mosque might be and become. The mosque will have to attain its rightful and self-assured place in world society, so that later generations who choose to come to North America will not be faced by a theater garbed in Moorish dress.

Muslims living in the non-Islamic West face an unparalleled opportunity. Theirs is a promising exile: a freedom of thought, action, and inquiry unknown in the contemporary Muslim world. They are challenged by a milieu that takes pride in oppositional provocations. Those who can break free of the inertial ties of national and ethnic personas will be the ones who will forge an Islamicity hitherto unexperienced. They have the freedom to question the canons of traditional expression. Their very exile, understood as separation from the center, will make the expressions of Islam more profound, whether in literature, music, art, or architecture.

Muslim minorities in the non-Muslim world will ultimately realize that their history has put them in a position somehow reminiscent of the Prophet’s Meccan period. Their isolation will purify and strengthen their belief. It will refine their thought and make their tools precise, and at an appropriate time, they will start to send “expressive” postcards home. Then there will begin another migration, not in space and time, but from blindness of a certain kind to a clearer vision, from spiritless materiality toward expressive spirituality.


Editor’s note: I prepared this essay from a draft paper by Gulzar Haider, “Prayer Rugs Lost and Found: In Search of Mosque Architecture” (1993), a slide presentation at the SSRC (May 13, 1989), and the published essays cited. I have organized and edited the material, provided linkage where necessary, and chosen the illustrations.—BDM

1. The Shriners are formally known as the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, “an auxiliary of the Masonic order…dedicated to good fellowship, health programs, charitable works, etc.” (Random House Dictionary, 2d ed., s.v. “Shriner”). [BACK]

2. “Call to mind also when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the ‘House’ and (having done so) prayed: O Lord, accept this offering from us, it is Thou Who are All-Hearing, All-Knowing” (Qu’ran, 2:128). [BACK]

3. Lahore is well known for such masterpieces of Islamic architecture as the Badshahi Mosque, Jahangir’s Tomb, and Shalimar Gardens. [BACK]

4. The phrase is borrowed with respect and apology from the great Muslim sage Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi, who spoke of al-ghurbat al-gharbiyya (translated by H. Corbin and S. H. Nasr as “occidental exile”) as the state of the soul separated from its divine origin. See Nasr 1964: 64–68. [BACK]

5. Al-Batin (Hidden), al-Zahir (Manifest), two of the “Ninety-nine” Asma’ al Husna (Beautiful Names of God). Of much philosophical interest through Muslim history, the “Names” are sometimes proposed to be irreducible facets of the Divine Being that may reflect the seeker’s self to himself and thus make possible gnosis, the cognizance of the destiny of the seeker’s soul. The two names al-Batin and al-Zahir are of special interest to architects in pursuit of the silent eloquence of space and the quintessential presence of form. For an initiation into the relationship between esoteric philosophy of Islam and its architectural expression, I am indebted to Ardalan and Bakhtiar 1973. [BACK]

Works Cited

Ardalan, Nader, and Laleh Bakhtiar. 1973. The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. UC-eLinks

Fletcher, Banister. 1896. A History of Architecture for the. Student, Craftsman, and Amateur: Being a Comparative View from the Earliest Period. 2d ed. London: B. T. Batsford. UC-eLinks

Haider, Gulzar. 1990. “‘Brother in Islam, Please Draw Us a Mosque.’ Muslims in the West: A Personal Account.” In Expressions of Islam in Buildings, pp. 155–66. Proceedings of an International Seminar sponsored by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Indonesian Institute of Architecture, Jakarta, October 15–19, 1990. Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Geneva. UC-eLinks

——————. 1992. “The Bai‘tul-Islam Mosque: Architectural Intentions.” In Ahmadi Muslims: A Brief Introduction, pp. 10–12. Ontario: Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam. UC-eLinks

Le Corbusier. 1927. Towards a New Architecture. Translated by Frederick Etchells. New York: Brewer & Warren. UC-eLinks

Luxner, Larry. 1989. “Opa-locka Rising.” Aramco World Magazine, September– October 1989, pp. 2–7. UC-eLinks

Nasr, S. H. 1964. Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn ‘Arabi. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. UC-eLinks

Pope, Arthur Urban, and Phyllis Ackerman, eds. 1938–39. A Survey of Persian Art. London: Oxford University Press. UC-eLinks

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. UC-eLinks

Sweetman, John E. 1988. The Oriental Obsession: Islamic. Inspiration in British and American Art and Architecture, 1500–1920. New York: Cambridge University Press. UC-eLinks

2. Transcending Space

Recitation and Community among South Asian
Muslims in Canada

Regula Burckhardt Qureshi

Islamic practice is central in creating meaning and community among many first-generation Muslim families in Canada. Characteristic of that practice are the four recitational assemblies described below, all focused on shared articulation of religious and cherished words: milad, hymns and homilies in praise of the Prophet; zikr, Sufi invocational phrases and hymns; qur’ankhwani, one or more complete recitations of the Qur’an; and ayat-e-karima, 125,000 reiterations of a qur’anic verse.[1] South Asian Muslims have become well established across the urban landscape of Canada, and they have created a strong community life on the foundation of shared events internal to the community.

Advantaged by their access to English and English institutions, as well as by their successful entry into higher education, professions, and services, South Asians stand out among immigrants from the Muslim world. Originating mainly in Pakistan, but also in India, Bangladesh, East Africa, and Sri Lanka, they are linked by a common language, Urdu, and by a cosmopolitan culture shared by urban Muslims all over the Indian subcontinent. Immigration to Canada has largely come from upper- and middle-class families, who have also set the tone of community life in the new country; only recently, liberalized Canadian sponsorship laws have enabled immigration from socially and educationally less privileged backgrounds. These later immigrants benefit from the growing community network and the Canadian government’s multicultural outreach. As a result, with their social, educational, and health needs met by a comprehensive governmental support system, South Asian Muslims in Canada are overall reasonably prosperous and upwardly mobile, owning and replacing cars and homes, directing their children into preferred professional training, and sponsoring the immigration of relatives from the home country.

South Asian Muslims have, in the course of time, built mosques and become involved in the public representation of Islam through its buildings and organizations. In Edmonton, for example, to celebrate the ‘Id holidays (and, for a few, to attend weekly prayers), they initially joined the Arab-Canadian congregation in the small al-Rashid Mosque,[2] contributed to its impressive new building, and eventually built the Markaz ul Islam as a mosque for the Pakistani community. But to focus on this public face leaves the observer on the outside and on the surface; it misses a strong community life that is deeply meaningful and quite private. This privacy is far from exclusive, since South Asian Muslims hold sharing and hospitality as primary values. People love to open their homes to share special life events and religious practices integral to their warmly social community life.[3]

Islam has been a major determinant of individual and group identity among these immigrants in Canada, mediated by their shared language and regional lifestyle. More important, it offers its ideational foundation and a rich set of practices to give salient articulation to the uncharted exigencies of life in Canada. This process of “making Muslim space” for the Muslim diaspora within the larger Western context must take as its starting point one that is community-internal, one that defines, not what outsiders see, but what insiders identify as creating “space” for Islam.

In his comprehensive search for visually perceptible symbols and signs in Islam, Oleg Grabar cautiously but inevitably concludes that “Islamic culture finds its means of self-representation in hearing and acting rather than in seeing,” for “it is not forms which identify Islamic culture…but sounds, history, and a mode of life” (1983: 31, 29). Remarkable for coming from a specialist in the visual domain (Islamic architecture), this insight completely affirms my own experience as a specialist in sound; more important, it resounds from a chorus of Muslim voices speaking in both poetry and prose. Starting with the Prophet of Islam himself, these voices say in essence that Muslim space is where Muslims prevail (Abel 1965: 127). From the hadis of the Prophet Muhammad, which universalize the mosque as any place where Muslims pray,[4] to Sufi literature, where a tavern can become a cell (al-Hujwiri: 409), the theme of “multiplicity of purpose and flexibility of space” is a persuasive one in Islamic discourse. It also marks the history of Islamic “built space” itself (Jones 1978: 162).

Spatial cannot, therefore, be reduced to meaning visual and accessible to reification, as in a good deal of Western scholarship (Durkheim 1938; Moravia 1976). The new ethnography based on dialogue and process considers itself more appropriately represented by the modalities of the aural and oral (Fabian 1983; Ong 1970), which provide a better starting point for a dialectical communication giving access to the voices of those who are being studied.

Running counter to the widespread Western view of an Islam located in minarets, calligraphy, and carpets, what Muslims have taught me to associate with their religion are its commitment to universality, its resources of portability, its focus on a single sacred center, and its singularly verbal message. Islamic praxis transcends local space primarily by aural, not visual, communication. Consider the following vivid images of Canadian Muslim living: ritual prayers recited using towels as makeshift prayer rugs on any available floor area, subject only to identifying the direction of the Ka‘ba; of reading the Qur’an during spare moments at the office desk; of holding a Sufi zikr seated informally across the space facing an unlit fireplace; of a funeral oration in the gymnasium that is part of the mosque complex; of breaking the fast during Ramadan in front of a TV or anywhere in the house; of a list of qur’anic invocations held by a magnet on the refrigerator door. What expresses Muslim identity—or experience, or faith—is process, at the core of which are words: the words of the qur’anic Message, words that explain and interpret the Message, words that praise God and his Messenger, words that express the believer’s submission—“Islam.” This emphasis resonates throughout the essays in this volume.

Key to proper utterance is the believer’s intent. This is most clearly articulated in the classical Sufi writings on the assemblies for the performance of zikr and sama’ (listening to mystical poetry). These texts postulate neutral space and time,[5] for what creates the actual ritual are its words, appropriately uttered and received. Muslims are linked by words, above all the divine Message of God in the Qur’an, and by the Ka‘ba, toward which they all face during ritual prayer (salat). Such words are rendered visual and even decorative, but the purpose is to remind the Muslim to utter these words by reading or reciting them. Thus in a mosque all the outstanding spatial features are directly linked to both the Word and its actualization: from the minaret for reciting adhan and qur’anic calligraphy on the outside to the mihrab niche for the imam to lead the prayer and the mimbar from which he speaks the khutba (sermon). In the home, the Qur’an is always present; it is not displayed but placed in an elevated location as a mark of respect. What needs to be stressed is that for Muslims neither the Qur’an nor any visual Islamic display is a locus of contemplation; they are meant to initiate articulation and action.

Figures 10a-b. The verbal-visual presence of Islam in a Canadian home. Photographs by Regula Burckhardt Qureshi.
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As for the visual articulation of Muslim identity in today’s South Asian Muslim home in Canada, what dominates is the qur’anic word (fig. 10). Artistically calligraphed qur’anic verses are displayed in many forms: prints in a Western-style rectangular picture frame, ornamental trays or plates of etched or embossed brass or copper, religious words on art objects collected from different parts of the Islamic world, including the South Asian homeland. Pakistan, especially, offers items that are both traditional, such as enamelled ceramic plates or tiles, and modern, such as calligraphic sculptures made of recently discovered marble. What all these calligraphic items have in common, regardless of differences in material, style, or connotation, is their primary function: to convey a religious verbal message. The messages may be the names of God or the names of the Prophet, or the kalma, “La llaha-il Allah, Muhammad al-Rasul Allah” (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet”). They are often a part of the Qur’an, for example, the sura al-Rahman (sura 55), on divine beneficence, and include the words that open the Qur’an and preface each sura: “In the Name of God most Gracious, most Merciful” (“Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim”); they are recited when a Muslim begins any task, from beginning a meal to starting on a journey. Also favored are the four qul,[6] especially the sura al-Ikhlas (“Qul hu wallahu ahad…”);[7] these are short suras beneficial for any place and occasion. A special passage selected to give safety to home and family is the “Ayat al-Kursi.”[8] Complementing these verbal messages are occasional pictorial representations of the Ka‘ba, which can take the place of a painting to adorn the living room.[9]

Aesthetically less relevant, but all the more clearly action-oriented in function are words that convey information to facilitate religious observances, mainly in the form of an Islamic calendar that marks the lunar months and days, religious holidays, and times for starting and ending the fast during the month of Ramadan and perhaps for the five daily prayers. In addition, families with children may display words for Muslim living, for their children to absorb, perhaps qur’anic verses on a calendar supplied by the local mosque or simply a list of religiously appropriate responses to different life situations in Arabic—for instance, “Masha’allah” (“by the grace of God”) or “Insha’allah” (“God willing”). Individual homes, of course, differ widely in the kind, extent, and style of visual-spatial expression of Islamic words.

Engaging in the articulation of Islamic word and performing the relevant actions form the basis of individual Muslim identity; sharing that engagement links Muslims into a community. The primary ritual of a Muslim is salat, the prescribed ritual prayer offered five times each day, for which South Asian usage employs the Persian term namaz. Even though a Western observer’s visual attention may be directed to the ritual gestures of prostration, it needs to be stressed that the primary action of namaz is verbal: one “says” or “recites” the prayer (in Urdu: namaz parhna).[10] Another form of individual recitation is qir’at, the reading of chosen passages from the Qur’an, either following namaz or at any other suitable time. Normally silent, such recitation or reading may also be chanted; this sets apart the sound of the words by making them beautiful (khushilhan), while the act of recitation is set apart by a respectful and modest posture and physical attitude. Most important, religious recitation means actually saying the words, even when reading silently, not just visually perusing them, as in the Western sense of reading. Indeed, the fact that Urdu speakers apply the term reading to both silent reading and voiced recitation or chant denotes less a limitation in vocabulary than a fundamentally different conception of the act of reading itself (Tomlinson 1993).

In addition to namaz, reading or reciting religious words is also carried out as a structural, collective activity in the four kinds of assemblies described here. They fall into two different formats. Milad and zikr follow a traditional performative format of South Asia in which one or several persons recite to the assembled audience. Led by reciters, they require competence and result in a structured performance sequence. The Shi‘a majlis (Schubel, this volume) follows the same pattern (Qureshi 1981). Qur’ankhwani and ayat-e-karima, on the other hand, are participatory gatherings of silent recitation, which is shared by all. All four assemblies share basic features of setting and overall procedure.

First of all, the prime locus for holding these assemblies remains the home, community associations and public buildings notwithstanding, for the processes of community formation emanate essentially from individual families, as do the rituals or religious “performance events” that link people of the same group. The distinct subcultures of men and women contribute to and are shaped by these occasions. Visually apparent in separate seating arrangements and formal social space generally, what this “segregation” means—rather than what it displays—is interaction and mutual reinforcement among members of the same gender within and across families. Supported by their single-gender network, both men and women mobilize support for initiatives such as the holding of religious assemblies appropriate to their family’s personal circumstances.

Over the years in Canada, spatially separated socializing has visibly increased. On the surface, this trend would seem to run counter to increasing adaptation to the Western host society. In fact, it represents an “internal adaptation” to more extensive familylike socializing among people not related by family ties. Given this reality, spatial separation is a response, for example, to the concerns of elderly parents, especially grandmothers, who are unaccustomed to mixed socializing. It also reflects concern for creating an appropriate social environment for growing daughters by reinforcing the traditional pattern of restricted interaction between the sexes (Qureshi 1991). This trend has been further reinforced by the conservative impact of transnational Islamic movements.

In reality, however, networks of connectedness among women and among men have always been strong. This point bears emphasizing, precisely because the spatial element of female seclusion tends to claim much attention at the expense of recognizing the autonomous role of women in South Asian Muslim homes. Home-based affairs are always in the hands of women, who also, of course, produce the repasts provided for social or religious “functions” outside the home.

The key change in religious assemblies from the pattern of the homeland is that they now take place largely in this context of domestic hospitality and socializing (Qureshi 1972; 1980: v; 1981). The separation of men and women is facilitated by modern house plans that include both a drawing room and a family room, with men typically in the formal drawing room, leaving women to the family room or other less formal parts of the house. A similar use of space has been described for the typically modest homes of South Asian Muslims in Britain (Shaw 1988) and for African-American Muslims (McCloud, this volume).


Milad is the devotional assembly in the most traditional sense, celebrating the Prophet’s birth on the twelfth day of the month Rabi ul-Awwal. Practiced by Muslims all over South Asia, the milad has an established format. A small reciting group presents a sequence of chanted[11] hymns in praise of the Prophet (na‘t), alternating with spoken homilies (riwayat,bayan) and interspersed with Arabic praise litanies (durud). Like all religious events, a milad begins with God, often in the form of a hymn of praise to God (hamd); sometimes it is preceded by qur’anic recitation. A salutational hymn to the Prophet (salam) followed by an intercessory prayer to God (du‘a) and a recitation of al-Fatiha (sura 1), the sura dedicated to prayer for the dead, conclude the event (fig. 11).

Figure 11. Hymns recited at Milad-e-Akbar: Durud (litany in praise of the Prophet); Na‘t (“Allah Allah Allahu”); Salam (“Ya Nabi Salam Alaika”); and Du‘a.
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Milads are held during the entire month of Rabi ul-Awwal and also on auspicious occasions such as a move into a new house, professional success, and family events such as the arrival of a daughter-in-law from Pakistan or the birth of a healthy grandchild. Milads are predominantly a women’s tradition, and even in South Asia, they take place mainly in homes, with women reciting.[12] In Canada, the smaller Muslim community of the 1960s and 1970s saw milads that included both women and men and their then mostly small children.

One of many such events from the late 1970s stands out in my memory, a milad held in conjunction with a bismillah celebration, a ceremony that initiates a child’s education, traditionally at the age of four years and four months. The milad was organized to precede the brief ceremony as an expression of praise and thanks, and to invoke blessings. The ceremony itself bespeaks the centrality of reading and reciting the qur’anic word: a religious teacher or family elder guides the child’s hand to write the first letters of the Arabic Urdu alphabet and recites with her the opening words of the Qur’an: “Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim” (“In the name of God, the all-compassionate, the all-merciful”).

As friends gradually arrived, they were invited to settle down in the living- and dining-room area, which was cleared of furniture and covered with white sheets, back support being offered by pillows and bolsters, as well as by the walls. A special carpet was placed against one wall for the reciters. An attractive cloth packet containing the book Milad-e-Akbar (Akbar Warsi n.d.), a compilation of hymns and prose sermons from which recitations would be chosen, was placed on a decorative raised pillow. The guests sat down along the other walls, eventually forming a loose circle around the entire area. Men and women naturally chose to sit in different areas of the s-shaped space, joining friends among their gender group and talking informally. The hostess had previously asked a friend who was a competent reciter for the recitation, and the latter then asked two other invited friends to join her. The milad was relatively short, with only two sets of hymns and riwayat, followed by the salam and then the du‘a.

Then the bismillah ceremony followed, all conducted by the women, with the men participating as listeners. Everyone’s attention was on the beautifully dressed little girl and her words of recitation. The joyous event concluded with a sumptuous dinner.

Today, preference has shifted to all-female milads, supported by the trend noted above toward separating social space by gender. Excluding men also allows the hostess to include participants from twice as many households, which is socially desirable given the expanding personal circles brought about by the larger numbers of immigrants. These events are now multigenerational. Overall, the recitation may lack the performative creativity of the seasoned semiprofessionals of the Indian subcontinent. But, as in a recent “housewarming” milad where the grandmother of the young hostess presided over four generations (fig. 12), milads often do achieve an intensely religious mood in a setting of relaxed intimacy.

Figure 12. Recitation of the great-grandmother. Photograph by Yasmeen Nizam.
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Zikr (“recollection”) is the Sufi practice of remembering God by repeating His name. The most commonly recited zikr phrases are linked to the articulation of the kalma: “Allahu” (God is); “La ilaha il-Allah” (There is no God but God); and “il-Allah” (The only God). Their constant repetition is intended to create a spiritual-emotional experience of nearness to God. The zikr assembly is convened by a spiritual leader, who is responsible for intoning and coordinating the repeated reiteration of these powerful invocations, as well as for providing spiritual guidance for the experience.

Zikr assemblies are relatively uncommon in Canada because of the scarcity of Sufis among South Asian Muslim immigrants, and among middle- and upper-class Muslims in South Asia generally. Many Muslims do not really approve of the practice. At a zikr gathering held in the 1980s, non-Sufis were invited as personal friends, or as an outreach gesture on behalf of Sufism and of the host’s Sufi lineage. After a fine dinner, the guests were seated in the family room, oriented around the host, who informally introduced the significance and purpose of the zikr. He then initiated the zikr recitation with the universal opening phrase of the kalma, speaking the words rhythmically and accompanying them with the traditional gesture of bowing the head and placing the right hand on the heart, whose pulse is understood as the Sufi’s inner zikr. The participants joined in with either voiced or silent zikr (zikr-e-jali or zikr-e-khafi).

Here the performer-audience opposition is less total than in the milad because of active audience participation. Ideally, a Sufi assembly would also offer the listeners the spiritually involving experience of sama’, listening to mystical hymns (qawwali), but that is rarely possible because of the lack of trained performers. For this reason, the few Sufis who have held such assemblies in Canada reach for the resource of zikr, which requires only a modicum of recitational skill. Another recent trend is the playing of qawwali recordings to evoke the experience of sama’.


Qur’ankhwani and ayat-e-karima are distinctly nonperformative and therefore differ from the other two assemblies fundamentally in their organizational structure. In these participatory assemblies, people gather to share in the task of completing a major task of recitation: the complete text of the Qur’an in qur’ankhwani, and 125,000 utterances of a specified qur’anic verse in ayat-e-karima.[13] Each individual recites soundlessly, so that neither spatial nor temporal management is required, although there is informal coordination between reciters. Women and men gather in separate rooms with sheet-covered floors, seated along walls or furniture for back support, their heads covered “as a mark of respect.” Participants focus on the task of reciting, their lips often moving silently as they speak each word to themselves.

Qur’ankhwani entails the recitation of the whole Qur’an.[14] This is done traditionally during Ramadan and on the occasion of a death, as well as on the soyem and chehlum (commemorations on the third and fortieth days after death), and the anniversary of a death (barsi). In recent years, qur’ankhwani has also been organized on auspicious occasions, and more generally to invoke a blessing (for instance, on a new home). The aim is to complete the reading of at least one and preferably several Qur’ans, for these represent accumulated blessings dedicated to the person or cause for whom the qur’ankhwani is being held.

One senior widow holds a qur’ankhwani, followed by a meal, each year on the weekend following the death anniversary of her husband, who died ten years ago. In order not to fall short of at least one complete reading of the Qur’an, her two sons and daughters-in-law begin to read one or two hours before the event starts, and if many people arrive early, a second or even a third Qur’an might be completed. If the reading still falls short of the goal, the recitation is completed later by members of the household.

The host has made the Qur’an available in the form of thirty separately bound sections, the siparas, which form the traditional units of qur’ankhwani recitation and are familiar to everyone. On this occasion, a friend brought a second set, so that instead of sharing, the men’s room and the women’s room each had its own. Each guest picked up one siparah, perhaps selecting a particular siparah containing a favored sura. Completed siparahs were placed separately to avoid duplication. Someone already present quietly provided newcomers with directions as needed. Anyone not ba-wuzu (ritually clean)[15] did not recite but sat quietly. Those who read quickly soon added their siparas to the pile of completed ones, and each picked up another. When none were left in the women’s room, unread siparas were brought in from the men’s room, since they, being fewer in number, had not been able to read as much. Each person who had completed his or her last sipara sat quietly or, in the case of women, went to the kitchen to help and socialize. On completion of the Qur’an, the host’s daughter placed a tray with a dish of halva on the sheet-covered floor of the living room where the women had been sitting, and everyone recited the sura al-Fatiha, followed by the du‘a to bring peace to the dead person and to bless the food that was later placed on the table along with the halva.

Now everyone rose, removed their head coverings, and proceeded to enjoy the company of friends and a delicious meal. Participants in a qur’ankhwani work hard for the host to gain religious merit or blessings; this generates a special sense of reciprocity between host and guest, arising from a genuine sense of religious commitment.


Ayat-e-karima denotes the famous qur’anic verse in which the Prophet Jonah, in the belly of the whale, cries out to God admitting his wrong, and God then saves him, saying, “and thus do we deliver those who have faith” (21:88).[16] The words of the ayat thus recall and invoke God’s mercy, hence the name karima (“merciful”): “La Ilaha Illah anta subhaneka inni kunto min az-zalemin” (There is no god but Thou; glory to Thee; I was indeed wrong.) When God’s help is needed for something important, this verse is chosen to be recited a total of 125,000 times. The task is undertaken collectively in this least structured of all assemblies, for the recitation consists of a single phrase known to all, so that there is no need for either leadership or printed text.

In 1986, a Pakistani-Canadian invited her friends to an ayat-e-karima when her husband was recovering from a serious illness. Given the immensity of the task, a late morning time on a Sunday was chosen, and many friends were invited. A large number came to support this effort; most brought along their tasbihs (rosaries) of one hundred beads to facilitate counting, or they picked up one of the tasbihs provided by the host. To add up individual counts, fifty sheets with twenty-five circles each had been drawn up and placed among both men and women, so that circle by circle could be marked off for each tasbih completed, in contrast to the old system of counting with almonds. Participants took care of their own counting, until all the circles were marked off. The recitation completed, a du‘a was recited for the desired purpose. Then people rose to recite their namaz and to socialize; as usual, the event concluded with a sumptuous dinner, after which people quickly dispersed.

In this recitational event, no one stood out in any way; attending it was simply to reinforce the bond of mutual support that can always be activated among members of the community. In its own way, each of the four assemblies adds profoundly and significantly to this support, invoking shared ways of reaching God and shared means of coping with present-day life situations.

From Home to Mosque

This shared religious life appears essentially private, personal, and deeply conservative. The prime constant in this experience has been the home domain, although not in the sense of a specific home, since families readily move, and not in the sense of a specific urban area, since there are no signs of a South Asian Muslim quarter emerging. At the same time, the Muslim sense of community and, even more so, the sense of religious identity, has increasingly been extending beyond the home. The two main mosques in Edmonton, the one originally Arab and the second South Asian, reflect a gradually evolving sense of community, serving less as “sacred space”[17] than simply as loci for religious observance. The mosque is also the place where South Asian Muslims are today negotiating a communal identity that has both religious and sociocultural facets. This is evidenced in the way they selectively attend both mosques on different occasions. For instance, for ‘Id prayers many Pakistanis go to the original al-Rashid Mosque, with the aim of joining in one single Muslim congregation on ‘Id day, as they do in their homeland.

Notable is the participation of women in mosque worship, a practice pioneered by Arab Muslims and now practiced by South Asians, although in their homelands, mosques are attended only by men. Another Western innovation is the use of the mosque basement for community “functions”—and, of course, for children’s religion classes. The significance of participation becomes obvious if one compares such centers of Muslim worship as the Shi‘a imambara (or imambargah) or, even more so, the Isma‘ili jama‘tkhana, where women, and thereby children, participate in complementary roles as fully as men, so that for these Muslims their centers have become truly a community space.[18]

Increasing mosque activity no doubt reflects a recent and slowly growing trend toward solidifying and projecting a collective Muslim identity in the public domain, while also negotiating ethnocultural and linguistic differences vis-à-vis the universalizing thrust of transnational Islamic movements. Muslim Canadians themselves, however, often debate and deplore the fact that they are not “well organized” as a community.

Where South Asian Sunnis have constituted themselves into public community groups, it has been as narrower linguistic, regional, and national associations, such as the largely Punjabi-speaking Pakistani Association of Alberta. On the other hand, Urdu speakers, who hail from urban areas across the Indian subcontinent, lack a national focus in addition to a specifically Islamic one.[19] Individuals and families also express themselves through association with earlier and differently defined communities of Muslims—the Muslim Student Association; its parent organization, the Islamic Society of North America; a Muslim youth or women’s group; a Sufi group; a mosque association. Over their history in Canada, self-identification for Muslims has ranged within a universe extending from the single family to the umma of all Muslims; Muslim self-expression can therefore draw from anywhere in this rich reference base.

A gradual shift toward the mosque as a center of identity has been taking place during the past ten years. With the establishment of the South Asian mosque, or “Pakistani masjid” (as the Markaz ul Islam is commonly called), a deep involvement in the building, funding, and running of the mosque has created a sense of solidarity among men, on the one hand, and women, on the other, of many families. Contributing to this solidarity has been the desire of families to strengthen the religious identity of their growing children by encouraging joint activities. Recitational assemblies, especially qur’ankhwani assemblies held after a death, are beginning to take place in the mosque. Out of respect for its sacred content, qur’anic recitation is done in the mosque’s area for worship, on the main floor for men and the balcony for women. Both men and women arrive individually and choose a sitting place on the floor, using the walls for back support; one or two chairs are provided for the infirm. The event proceeds exactly as in the home. Those who finish their reading sit quietly, silent or talking softly; some individually assume prayer position to say optional rak‘at preceding the regular namaz that will follow the completion of the qur’ankhwani. After prayer, everyone repairs to the basement, where an appropriate repast has been laid out by the hostess and her women friends.

Ayat-e-karima, too, is sometimes held in the mosque, so as to involve a much larger number of reciters. As in the home, women of the host’s family organize the event, but here with the help of friends who share the tasks of preparing the food and of telephoning a large number of people to recite, using a list that circulates for this purpose. What stands out is that women continue to manage these events even in the mosque.

Unlike qur’ankhwani and ayat-e-karima, the milad is held in the meeting area in the basement of the mosque, given the nonliturgical status of its texts. In this space, men and women are, beyond the cloakroom area, separated by movable screens acquired earlier to create separate classroom spaces for an Islamic school. In contrast to the home situation, the proceedings are under male leadership, including riwayat and individually recited na‘t. Na‘t are also recited by a group of children, mainly girls, but not by women.

The milad is concluded by a repast; but occasionally now another, more public, way is chosen to conclude a large milad by offering everyone a share of tabarruk (blessed food). Thus there are signs of a more “public” or communitarian hue in these mosque events. On the other hand, they are hosted by—or often in the case of a death, on behalf of—a particular family, just like the same events held in the home of such a family. The issue of female participation in mosque basement activities is an evolving one, influenced on one side by the lack of precedent for women taking any active role on mosque premises vis-à-vis men, other than providing refreshments, and on the other by the recognition of women’s actual contribution toward the genesis and maintenance of this mosque.

Zikr does not have the community appeal to warrant being held in the mosque.

At this point, the frequency and importance of mosque events is minor as compared to home-based assemblies; it remains to be seen whether the desire to articulate a public Muslim identity will in the future supersede other, nonreligious facets of community identity, which up to now have continued to motivate South Asian Muslim bonding and self-expression.

From Performance to Participation

Placing the four assemblies in the historical perspective of three decades clearly indicates a movement toward the increased prevalence of the participatory, soundless, leaderless gathering of Arabic recitation. The growing preference for qur’ankhwani, not only in North America but also in Pakistan, probably reflects the impact of influential transnational Islamic movements. The general shift toward participatory, silent recitation appears moreover to be a function of two aspects of contemporary South Asian Muslim life in North America. One is a lack of performance resources, given the absence of traditional service professions, whether hereditary musical specialists, such as qawwals who perform mystical hymns for Sufi assemblies, or musically adept artisans and tradesmen. Second, the participatory assembly reflects the Canadian reality of a voluntary association among individuals who share a bond of religion and community activated only by mutual goodwill, leaving behind the ties of dominance and dependence that characterized social relationships in the homeland. The qur’ankhwani accurately represents this reality where everyone’s voice is speaking, but no one dominates. This contrasts clearly with the milad model, which projects dominance, submission, and temporal-spatial coordination within the group.

This trend represents a confluence of several trajectories, all of which are relevant to the larger issue of self-representation by South Asian Muslims in North America. First, identity is asserted vis-à-vis the West and in the face of its perceived “threat to valued social relationships” (Metcalf 1989) through an acting out of those relationships, reinforcing them by means of the shared verbal articulation of religious identity. Second, space is functional. Structural spatial expression of Muslim identity resides in the mosque, the processual spatial expression of Muslim identity is the qibla, and the social expression of family and gender relationships is the home. Finally, linking all three in dynamic action are the Word and its articulation, embodied in both the ritual of prayer and of the recitational assembly. Ritual prayer serves to universalize; recitational assemblies, to actualize the particular community of South Asian Muslims in Canada.

Seen in a wider context, the life of the four recitational assemblies forms a salient part of the unique and dynamic process of this Muslim community’s creating itself in the West. Its primary action has been to focus self-expression inward in order to articulate community identity to its own members, largely disregarding the presence of a larger society of outsiders. But as their sense of community has strengthened, the focus of self-expression is expanding toward self-representation vis-à-vis the larger society. Recitation, too, is affected by this shift, but it remains to be seen how South Asian Muslims transform the living Islamic Word as they move from adapting Western space to Muslim uses toward the creation of a Muslim space displayed to non-Muslims in the West.


1. This paper is drawn essentially from the life involvement of one who is both an outsider and insider among Muslims in Canada, a socially entrenched participant and translator across the margins. Its focus is on Muslims who have become, over the years, more like family members than friends, and what I write must reflect their sense of self-representation. My collaborators’ wish to stay outside this text accounts for the absence of the personal voices so attractive to read (see also Qureshi 1991). Special thanks go to Saleem Qureshi, Siddiqua Qureshi, Amera Raza, Atiya Siddiqi, Yasmeen Nizam, Zehra Hameed, Aqil Athar, Anisa and Nazir Khatib, and Najma Hossain. I am particularly grateful to Atiya Siddiqi, Anisa Khatib, Ansa Athar, and Yasmeen Nizam for sharing photographs of their homes. This chapter is dedicated to all of you! [BACK]

2. Built in 1938 by a small group of Arab immigrants, Edmonton’s al-Rashid Mosque is the oldest in Canada. The newly built al-Rashid Mosque was opened in 1982. Today, the original small building has been moved to the historical site of Fort Edmonton. The Markaz ul Islam was opened in 1986. [BACK]

3. For a discussion of basic concepts in South Asian Canadian community formation, see Qureshi 1983. [BACK]

4. “The whole world is a masjid [mosque] for you, so wherever the hour of prayer overtakes thee, thou shalt perform the salat and that is masjid” (SahihMuslim 1977, vol. 1, ch. 194, no. 1057, p. 264; see also Samb 1991: 645). [BACK]

5. The classical formulation is by Ghazali (Macdonald 1901–2; see also During 1988). [BACK]

6. Qur’an, suras 109, 112, 113, 114. [BACK]

7. Ibid., sura 112. [BACK]

8. Ibid., sura 2:255. [BACK]

9. In Shi‘a homes, names include members of the Prophet’s family (‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Husain), and pictures of their tombs at Karbala (Husain) and Najaf (‘Ali). [BACK]

10. If disabled, a Muslim can recite a namaz without the gestures, just as dry cleaning can be substituted in ablutions (wuzu) if water is unavailable. Flexibility vis-à-vis ritual observance is characteristic of Islam and clearly serves to facilitate individual observance. [BACK]

11. Despite the highly musical presentation, the term singing is inappropriate, since Islamic tradition does not approve of music in association with religious expression. [BACK]

12. An informal alias for milad is auraton ki qawwali (women’s qawwali)—that is, a women’s equivalent of the (male) Sufi devotional assembly convened for listening to the performance of mystical hymns (Qureshi 1995). [BACK]

13. Also chosen sometimes for repeated recitation are the words of the first qul, for which the appropriate number is 11,000 times. The practice of undertaking a fixed number of repeated repetitions is collectively termed wazifa. [BACK]

14. The term khatam-e-qur’an (completion of the Qur’an) is also used for qur’ankwhani (see, e.g., Werbner 1990). [BACK]

15. For example, during menstruation. [BACK]

16. All qur’anic translations are taken from Yusuf Ali 1986. [BACK]

17. In my experience, the term sacred does not resonate positively with Muslims. [BACK]

18. My long association with both the Shi‘a and Isma‘ili communities leads me to think that their prior experience as endogamous minority groups (especially in East Africa) may have endowed them with an institutional religious life that furthered their adaptation and self-definition in Canada. The swift establishment of thriving imambaras and jama‘tkhanas after the two groups emigrated from East Africa contrasts strikingly with the very gradual establishment of South Asian mosque activities. Also striking is the fact that before the substantial immigration of Khoja Shi‘as from East Africa, South Asian Shi‘a religious life in Canada was not more publicly organized than that of South Asian Sunnis, possibly because of low numbers. See Schubel, this volume. [BACK]

19. In Alberta this is exemplified by the now-dormant Urdu Muslim Cultural Association. The more recently established Bazm-e-Sukhan is explicitly secular and includes anyone interested in Urdu culture. [BACK]

Works Cited

Abel, A. 1965. “Dar-ul Islam.” In The Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. B. Lewis, C. H. Pellet, and J. Schacht, 2: 127–28. Leiden: Brill. UC-eLinks

Akbar Warsi, Khwaja Muhammad. N.d. Milad-e-Akbar. Delhi: Ratan. UC-eLinks

Durkheim, Emile. 1938. L’Evolution pédogogique en France des origines à la Renaissance. Paris: Felix Alcan. UC-eLinks

During, Jean. 1988. Musique et extase: L’Audition mystique dans la tradition soufie. Paris: Albin Michel. UC-eLinks

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press. UC-eLinks

Grabar, Oleg. 1983. “Symbols and Signs in Islamic Architecture.” In Architecture and Community: Building in the Islamic World Today, ed. Renata Holod, pp. 25–32. Aga Khan Awards for Architecture. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture. UC-eLinks

al-Hujwiri. 1911. Kashf al-Mahjub. Translated by R. A. Nicholson. Gibb Memorial Series, no. 17. London: Luzac. Reprint, London, 1959. UC-eLinks

Jones, Dalu. 1978. “The Elements of Decoration: Surface, Pattern, and Light.” In Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning, pp. 144–75. London: Thames & Hudson. UC-eLinks

Macdonald, Duncan Black. 1901–2. “Emotional Religion in Islam as Affected by Music and Singing, Being a Translation of a Book of the Ihya Ulum ad-Din of al-Ghazzali.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1–28, 195–252, 705–48. UC-eLinks

Metcalf, Barbara D. 1989. “Making Space for Islam: Spatial Expression of Muslims in the West.” Proposal for SSRC Conference, Boston, November 1–4. UC-eLinks

Moravia, Sergio. 1976. “Les Ideologues et l’age des lumières.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 154: 1465–86. UC-eLinks

Ong, Walter J. 1958. Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. UC-eLinks

Samb, A. 1991. “Masdjid.” In The Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. C. E. Bosworth, E. van Douzel, B. Lewis, W. P. Heinrichs, and C. H. Pellet, 6: 644–707. Leiden: Brill. UC-eLinks

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. 1972. “Indo-Muslim Religious Music: An Overview.” Asian Music, 15–22. UC-eLinks

——————. 1980a. “India, Subcontinent of: IV Chanted Poetry, V Popular Religious Music, Muslim.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 9: 143–47. London: Macmillan. UC-eLinks

——————. 1980b. “Pakistan.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 14: 104–12. London: Macmillan. UC-eLinks

——————. 1981. “Islamic Music in an Indian Environment: The Shi‘a Majlis.” Ethnomusicology 25, 1 (January): 41–71. UC-eLinks

——————. 1991. “Marriage Strategies among Muslims from South East Asia.” In Muslim Families in North America, ed. E. Waugh, S. Abu-Laban, and R. B. Qureshi, pp. 185–212. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. UC-eLinks

——————. 1995. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali. 1986. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. UC-eLinks

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt, and Saleem M. M. Qureshi. 1983. “Pakistani Canadians: The Making of a Muslim Community.” In The Muslim Community in North America, ed. E. Waugh, B. Abu-Laban, and R. B. Qureshi, pp. 127–48. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. UC-eLinks

Sahih Muslim. 1977. In Al-Jami‘-us-Sahih by Imam Muslim, trans. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi. 4 vols. New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan. UC-eLinks

Shaw, Alison. 1988. A Pakistani Community in Britain. London: Blackwell. UC-eLinks

Tomlinson, Gary. 1993. Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. UC-eLinks

Werbner, Pnina. 1988. “‘Sealing’ the Koran: Offering and Sacrifice among Pakistani Labour Migrants.” Cultural Dynamics 1, 1: 77–97. UC-eLinks

Yusuf Ali, Abdullah, trans. 1986. The Holy Quran: Full Arabic Text, Roman Transliteration and Translation. Lahore: Sheikh Muhammad Ashraf. UC-eLinks

3. “This Is a Muslim Home”

Signs of Difference in the African-American Row House

Aminah Beverly McCloud

Muslims over history have varied widely in their cultural lives. They have, however, generally shared certain practices dependent on space. Muslims’ submission of their will to God ideally reappropriates space and reorganizes temporality. Salat (formal prayer) requires space both physically and mentally. Fasting makes demands of mental and spiritual space, while altering temporality. The Hajj demands its space and time. In salat, for example, boundaries are formed when the prayer space is isolated. The calling of the adhan and the iqamah signal movement from one reality to another as the Muslim and Muslimah stand before allah. In salat, the individual merges with the worldwide (and local) umma in a time for God that is distinct and unbounded. Both the practical needs of ritual and the profound juncture of the coterminous nature of the time and space of salat with the time and space of the world have a fundamental influence on space.

This essay first briefly describes the main Muslim communities and their congregational spaces in Philadelphia and then turns to a discussion of the city’s African-American Muslim homes. Muslims make these homes, built on standard models, into a distinctive “Muslim space” through signage, decoration, and practice.

The Philadelphia Communities and Congregational Space

Philadelphia has been a microcosm of Muslim activity at least since the 1940s. Most Islamic groups in the United States either have members living there or some ties with residents. By the middle of the 1970s, numerous Muslim communities were evident in Philadelphia, among them the Moorish Science Temple of America (1913), the Ahmadiyah movement (1921), three Nation of Islam communities (1930), the American Muslim Mission (1980), the Darul Islam (ca. 1971), and several communities associated with the Muslim Student Association.

“Our divine national movement stands for the specific grand principles of Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, and Justice,” the Moorish Science Temple’s statement of belief begins. “It is the great god allah alone, that guides the destiny of the divine and national movement” (Ali 1927). The community expect “the end of tyranny and wickedness” against African-Americans and seek to connect with their Muslim heritage in general and with the descendants of Moroccans in particular. They identify the qur’anic kufars (disbelievers, or the ungrateful) as the European-Americans, who face imminent destruction as a result of their apparent disbelief and unaccountability while engaging in evil conduct. They understand the nature of reality as spiritual and human existence as co-eternal with the existence of time. They believe that the Christianity taught by European-Americans was designed to enslave Africans, and they regard heaven and hell as conditions of the mind created by individual deeds and misdeeds.

Moorish Science members usually meet in a designated house in a room painted beige or eggshell, with neatly ordered rows of chairs on an uncarpeted floor polished to perfection. In one house I visited, all the chairs faced a small stage with a podium, behind which were seven chairs signaling some persons of importance. On the wall behind the stage were nicely framed portraits and documents: Noble Drew Ali’s mother dressed in white, with a long white veil; Noble Drew Ali by himself, looking regal; a charter for the community; and a set of bylaws. All the other walls were bare, and the only other fixture was a red flag with a green five-pointed star in its center. The sect offers members a space of neatness, cleanliness, and order.

The Ahmadiyyians, who originated in the Indian subcontinent in the late nineteenth century, assert that God is active in this world, determining and designing the course of events. They hold that there should be a living relationship with God, from whom revelatory experience is still possible. Because of this belief, other Muslims have accused them of denying the finality of Prophethood (cf. Haider, this volume). Ahmadis do, however, believe in the Oneness of God, observe the prescribed prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan, pay zakat, and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. They also uphold the Al-Hadith (Friedmann 1989). They are active missionaries, and their journals, The Review of Religions and The Moslem Sunrise, have been widely used.

In Philadelphia, this community meets in a large house, where there is strict adherence to the code of gender separation, with women having a separate entrance and a separate prayer room. The walls are bare, with the exception of an occasional piece of Arabic calligraphy. Distinct prayer areas are carpeted. Chairs are provided for eating and classes. The Indian subcontinent influences furnishings and other decorations.

The American Muslim Mission, which has largely replaced the Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s, is also active. The mission dates from an address delivered in Atlanta in the late 1970s by Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warithudeen Muhammad, who disbanded the central authority of the Chicago masjid, encouraging decentralization of the community. He “revived true Islam,” instituting salat at the proper times and encouraging the five pillars. Imams were to be trained in Arabic, tafsir, masjid administration, and marriage counseling. The AMM continues to emphasize concerns of African-Americans such as self-development, self-accountability, racism, and poverty.

American Muslim Mission communities refurbished their places of congregation to be “orthodox”; they were no longer called “temples” but “masjids” or “mosques.” Pictures of Elijah Muhammad, Clara Muhammad, and W. D. Fard were removed, along with the characteristic elegant chandeliers, heavy velvet drapes, chairs, and wall lighting. Search areas were turned into cloakrooms to serve as foyers leading into the masjid. Women, who had always been present side by side with men, were now separated from men inside the prayer area (the masala).

The Darul Islam, finally, used a rehabed house, which in the 1970s was open neither to the general community of Muslims nor to the surrounding community. The members sought seclusion and protection after reports of police mistreatment of their mentors in New York. Guards at the bare entranceway sat behind a counter to scrutinize visitors as to their intent. The community held its prayers upstairs, out of range of observation, with women in a separate room, linked by loudspeakers. Believers lived close to the masjid and schooled their children there. The mosque was open twenty-four hours a day.

As these examples illustrate, although the concept of umma is very important to African-American Muslims, it is provincially conceived. Their buildings reflect their many divisions and their perception of American hostility to the Muslim world. For all their sectarian differences, however, African-American Muslims share a great deal, including their use of the home.

“This is a Muslim Home”

African-American Muslims in large cities have continually attempted to replicate the earliest Muslim communities by locating themselves in physical communities in close proximity to the masjid. Some jointly purchase small apartment buildings when available. In a few cases, entire communities have moved to rural areas to be able to live together.

Muslims often mark their homes as a space of difference and separation by a sign on the door. This is especially important for those living outside a Muslim enclave. The sign creates a boundary that signals both a warning and a welcome. To non-Muslims, the sign serves as a polite warning that the visitor is about to enter a different space and time. For other Muslims, it is a sign denoting a refuge. The phrase, “this is a muslim home / please remove your shoes” is on the door of hundreds of African-American Muslim homes and apartments in Philadelphia and probably in other major cities as well.

Muslims say that these signs, selling for only fifty cents, appeared in the late 1960s on the tables of Muslim vendors. Non-Muslim workmen, repairmen, salespersons, and social workers may be annoyed by the sign and resist removing their shoes. Neighbors simply grow used to it.

For the owners of the space, the sign symbolizes the success of having created a boundary that defines an area of control. The sign dictates an attitude: in this house, it says, the hostile environment of racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination are locked out; prayer space and hospitality are guaranteed.

African-American Muslims self-consciously and deliberately organize the use of domestic space in the light of teachings found in the Qur’an and Al-Hadith, as well as through the example of immigrant Muslim homes and homes in the Muslim world. These Islamic norms thus inform the basic daily needs characteristic of domestic space—shelter, food storage and use, ritual activities, and social interaction. For African-American Muslims, the home becomes a space for learning and practicing Muslim behavior and for being separate from the larger society.

One of the classical divisions known in Islam, between Darul Islam (the House of Islam) and Darul Harb (the House of War), translates in American usage as the domestic space and the outside community. Domestic space is consciously separated from the space of the House of War, which is viewed as a space of religious intolerance and racism. The use of domestic space creates, moreover, a sense of shared spirituality with Muslims elsewhere in the Muslim world, while fostering a sense of well-being in an environment perceived as hostile.

Juan Campo has recently argued that “the religious meanings of domestic space is an important part of the study of sacred space” that has long been neglected (Campo 1991: 8). In examining the Islamic aspects of Egyptian homes, Campo links a terminology and discourse related to domestic space to a discourse related to God’s house (the Ka‘ba), sacred history, rules of behavior, and the Hereafter. Campo suggests that the social etiquette and some of the ritual observances defined for the Ka‘ba have served as the prototype for all human dwellings. The Qur’an reminds Muslims that the people before them who committed serious errors perished, along with their dwellings (cf. Haider, this volume). Thus, everyday social life is linked to “ideas about God, right and wrong, purity, and blessings.” Many rules relate to women (Campo 1991: 27). As for Paradise, “In each of these descriptions, the quality of life in Paradise is an idealized rendering of the best aspects of domestic life in this world” (Campo 1991: 25). Thus the Qur’an’s exhortations about the space and time of the Hereafter implicitly remind believers of the importance of the home. The Al-Hadith explicitly makes people’s houses and behavior in them regular objects of discourse. Campo argues that because of the moral restrictions on women’s movement and seclusion, a great deal of a house’s sacrality depends on the reputation of its female occupants.

These issues shape the lives of African-American Muslims living in Philadelphia row houses. There are row homes throughout the city, usually three-bedroom, two-story structures, often with no yard, some with small porches (fig. 13). The interior design is largely uniform. There are few houses with central hallways in the areas where Muslims predominately live. Rooms interconnect, with or without doors, with a small staircase leading upstairs to the small bedrooms and a centrally located bathroom. African-American Muslims have lived in these houses for several decades.

Figure 13. Philadelphia row house. Note Islamic signs in window and door. Photograph by Aminah Beverly McCloud.
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Stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life yield a central paradigm for living within the house. The house should be austere and near the masjid. Prophet Muhammad lived in a one-room dwelling, furnished with the bare necessities for living, with access to prayer space.

Al-Hadith regulate the accumulation of wealth and delineate the responsibilities attached to its use; African-American Muslims furnish their homes within these constraints.

Within their homes, Muslims live a distinctive life. Even their concepts of time differ from those of non-Muslims. The Muslim community is seen as a dot on a continuum that began with creation and does not end but shifts focus in the afterlife. Ritual practices define Muslim schedules, beginning with the pre-dawn prayer while most non-Muslim neighbors are sleeping. Fasting during the month of Ramadan has led school officials and neighbors to alert social workers to the possibility of child abuse or neglect, causing some Muslim households to become even more insular.

Life in the house is characterized by cleanliness and minimal consumption. There is only one requirement for Muslim space—a place for prayer. The Muslim not only retreats internally for experiencing taqwa (piety) for salat, but also requires a physical place to face the Ka‘ba and to perform the prayer undisturbed. This space should above all be free from pollution. Muslims have developed some creative strategies for overcoming the physical structure of their homes. They enter this space by removing their shoes, leaving them in baskets, shoe racks, bookcases, crates, or just a designated space near the front door, since most houses do not have foyers. Women, who typically carry an extra pair of socks to wear inside, are escorted to one portion of the house, while the men are escorted to another. The members of the household also divide themselves along gender lines at this time.

The house is usually decorated with Islamic texts and calligraphy, framed as well as unframed, and bronze plates engraved with various Qur’anic suras, much like the Canadian homes described by Qureshi above (fig. 10). Qur’anic recitations are the only music generally played in the public rooms of the home. In most living rooms, families have the latest copies of various Muslim newspapers, journals and pamphlets but not issues of Time,Ebony,Essence, or Woman’s Day. Bookcases hold the Qur’an on the top shelf by itself, at least one set of Al-Hadith, and several sets of commentary by Maulana Ali and Yusuf Ali just below them. Other texts, generally originating in Pakistan or Egypt, are also religious. These books are purchased from merchants, the masjid, and conventions. The bookcase may hold prayer rugs and veils, and may itself configure the room toward Mecca. The qiblah, or direction toward the Ka‘ba in Mecca, may also be indicated by a wall plaque or by some other piece of furnishing, such as the carved screen in figure 14.

Figure 14. Living room with calligraphy, Qur’an, and objects from African and Asian Muslim countries. Photograph by Aminah Beverly McCloud.
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Muslim space is replete with Arabic calligraphy, “oriental” rugs, brassware, latticed screens and so on. Since African-American Muslims are not tied to any particular country, they have drawn on the entire Muslim world for interior design. African-American Muslim adoption of a wide variety of Muslim cultural interior designs has generated probably the only “melting pot” of Muslim culture since the earliest centuries of Islamic history. In some homes, the furnishings for seating remind the visitor of a Moroccan restaurant: fat pillows made from synthetic oriental rugs, tables no more than a foot tall, couches with no legs, or mattresses used as couches. Other homes have traditional American furnishings. Living-room furniture is kept to a minimum in order to be able to turn the living-room space into prayer space without difficulty. Dining rooms are often sparsely furnished so that, along with the living room, they too can become a prayer area. In Philadelphia row homes, the dining room is usually situated between the kitchen and the living room; a maida (tablecloth) can be spread on the dining-room floor for meals and a few pillows, usually stacked in a corner, put out for seating.

Window shades, curtains, and drapes are always closed to exclude the view of neighbors in adjoining row houses. When visitors are not present, women are free to unveil and wear any appropriate clothing. When there are visitors, if there is even one adult male in the house, all the women will remain in the kitchen. They only leave to serve food or to pray.

The kitchens may accommodate a small dinette set, which doubles as a space for food preparation, an ongoing event. Halal meat (meat raised and then ritually slaughtered according to Islamic law) is purchased at great expense, either shipped in (by United Parcel Service or U.S. mail) or, in some communities, slaughtered by designated men in contractual arrangements with local farmers. Families then buy portions of the slaughtered meat. Breads are often homemade or are purchased from immigrant Muslim bakers or grocery stores. Dietary restrictions are strictly adhered to in all communities, and a great amount of time is thus spent in grocery shopping. Storage of foods is a critical skill. Vegetables are usually bought fresh and cooked daily. Foods regarded as Muslim food include falafel, couscous, humus, curry, lentils, pita bread, and basmati rice. Muslims prefer to cook elaborate dishes with spices, learned from immigrants, and avoid fast foods. Women highly esteem culinary skills.

Muslims do not linger in the bathroom (hamam) where jinn (creations of fire and thought in general to be evil) are thought to be present. Bathroom doors are kept closed for this reason. Those entering a bathroom wear special shoes or slippers. The bathroom is a space both of pollution and purification. The believer enters with the left foot, acknowledges the dangers of the space with a du‘a, performs the necessary acts, and leaves on the right foot, reentering prayer space. Some people place pictures or other decorative items in bathrooms that could not be placed in spaces for prayer. There may also be signs with instructions on ablution. In some homes, a curtain or screen is positioned around the toilet to separate it from other facilities in the bathroom, while in others a closed toilet lid suffices.

Full participation in the Muslim community requires certain responses in the domestic space. Homes must reflect Islamic injunctions on prayer space and diet. They must also reflect Muslim prohibitions of certain kinds of art, social entertainment, and mixing of men and women. Muslims recognize some shared values in American life, such as charity, but in general they find non-Muslim values, especially in relation to sex, overwhelming. They seek an ideal Muslim atmosphere inside the home that is wholly separate.

Unlike most of the Muslim world, which welcomes television and radio, African-American Muslims try to shut out Western values and open the door to Muslim values. Fear of compromise of Islamic values prompts many parents to prefer either Islamic education or home schooling, so that in several communities, children have had only brief contact with the larger community.

Dress is also distinctive. Women may wear long-sleeved blouses under short-sleeved dresses or pants under dresses that are above the ankles. Men occasionally wear long shirts reaching the thigh under suit jackets with traditional Muslim headwear. Young girls wear scarves as an early deterrent to assimilation into “Christian” society (cf. Slyomovics, fig. 40, this volume). To enjoy public entertainments, Muslims may rent an entire roller rink for the evening so that girls or boys can skate, or hold an outdoor picnic in some remote part of a park.

African-American Muslims have taken small portions of various Muslim cultures and woven their own tapestry. Living rooms may contain Berber-patterned rugs, rattan furniture, Victorian lamps, Indian brass vases, and Arabic calligraphy on walls, all together an enthusiastic mixture of worlds. Arabic has mixed with black English. The expression “Masha’allah,” which is generally understood to mean “It is what Allah decreed” in happiness over some event or occurrence, is used by most African-American Muslims only as a lament.

African-American Muslims have clearly found that their American nationality is but one small aspect of their identity as prescribed by Islam. They are part of the larger Muslim world and interact with immigrant Muslims, while at times clashing with them and even encountering racism. African-American Muslims are likely in the near future to seek a greater blending of African Islam with African-American Islam and thus to engender an even more distinct African-American Islam. Then, as now, the home will be central to its expression and will be seen—whether explicitly signposted or not—as a separate and explicitly Muslim space.

Works Cited

Ali, Noble Drew. 1927. The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple. UC-eLinks

Campo, Juan E. 1991. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. UC-eLinks

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1989. Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background. Berkeley: University of California Press. UC-eLinks

4. “Refuge” and “Prison”

Islam, Ethnicity, and the Adaptation of Space in Workers’ Housing in France

Moustapha Diop

Laurence Michalak

In the intense public debate about migration issues in France, there has been a general tendency to treat the religious affiliation of labor migrants from predominantly Muslim countries as their most salient feature. Migrants in France are, indeed, almost all Muslim—Arab North Africans, West Africans, and Turks. Yet we should not assume that religious affiliation necessarily plays a preeminent role in the position of labor migrants vis-à-vis the host country. For example, almost all Latin American migrants to the United States in recent years have been Christian, but religion plays no role in American discourse on migration. In France, however, where most migrants are of a different religion than their hosts, “Muslim” has become a synonym for “other”—or, some would argue, code for “nonwhite.” If migrants increasingly speak as “Muslim,” finding such an identity natural and effective in the new contexts where they live, we must see that in part as a label thrust upon them.

Muslims in France do not act to any significant degree—or at least not yet—as a corporate group, with a consciousness of unity, a sentiment of solidarity, and a consensus for collective action. Islam appears to be increasingly an aspect of “ethnicization,” which may or may not transcend national and other social divisions. The importance of domestic settings for constructing such social identities is evident throughout this volume. One of those settings is the densely populated, highly charged, semipublic space of the foyers created in France for migrant workers, whose space has sometimes, in important ways, been made Islamic.

The Foyers in France

The foyer is a ubiquitous aspect of the French urban and architectural landscape wherever there are high concentrations of foreign workers. The term foyer, or “home,” with its domestic connotations, is ironic, in that the foyers rarely house families and typically forbid couples and children. The migrants in the foyer are frequently married, but they have left their families in their countries of origin. The foyer is a social universe of non-French males, an island of workers, usually unskilled or low-skilled, away from their homelands and isolated from their families. In fact, foreign workers have had high rates of unemployment in recent years, so that the foyer has become a kind of reservoir of cheap foreign labor.

The function of the foyer is to provide sleeping accommodations and common facilities for its inhabitants. Several workers may share a room or a group of small individual bedrooms, grouped around a shared kitchen/dining facility and a bathroom.

A single building or group of buildings with multiple clusters like this forms the foyer. The foyer may also have common rooms, such as a room for Muslims to perform their daily prayers, like the makeshift room shown in figure 15. The foyer tends to be isolated—located away from the urban center, contiguous to places such as cemeteries and garbage dumps, typically found at urban peripheries. To compare the foyers to concentration camps or minimum security prisons or urban reservations would be too harsh. To compare them with youth hostels and student residences seems too mild.

Figure 15. A makeshift room for prayer in a foyer in the Var region of southeastern France. Note the rugs and the hanging with the Ka‘ba image to indicate the direction of prayer. Photograph by Laurence Michalak.
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The first modern foyers for migrant workers in France date from the early 1950s, but their rapid spread began when the French government passed a law (Article 116 of Law No. 56–780 of August 4, 1956), creating SONACOTRAL, the Societé nationale de construction de logements pour les travailleurs algériens (National Company for the Construction of Housing for Algerian Workers), to finance, construct, and manage housing for “Muslim French from Algeria come to work in metropolitan [France], and for their families.” SONACOTRAL was clearly expected to help keep closer control over Algerian workers in France, but algérien was dropped from the name in 1963, and the organization is now called SONACOTRA. By the early 1980s, other organizations—such as the ADEF (for management of construction-workers’ foyers), AFTAM (which included students and had a mainly sub-Saharan clientèle), and AFRP (for North Africans in the Paris region)—together accounted for another 128 foyers with 35,338 beds (Ginesy-Galano 1984: 28–48). By the end of 1988, SONACOTRA controlled 69,000 rooms and 1,800 apartments in 330 establishments, with a staff of 1,100 (Gagneux 1989). SONACOTRA today justly describes itself as “France’s Number One Host”—it is the largest entity in France in the field of hotels and housing. Figure 16 shows a small room in a SONACOTRA foyer. The next largest foyer organization is an umbrella group of organizations called UNAFO, the Union nationale des Associations gestionnaires des foyers des travailleurs migrants (National Union of Associations Managing Foyers for Migrant Workers), which includes most of the smaller foyer chains, totaling nearly 50 associations with about 260 foyers, 52,000 beds, and 2,200 staff, housing a mobile population (Brun-Melin 1989).

Figure 16. A Tunisian worker in a room in a SONACOTRA foyer. Photograph by Laurence Michalak.
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West Africans in the Foyers

The modern history of black African immigration to France began after World War I, when former African soldiers (known as tirailleurs sénégalais, or Senegalese infantrymen) were allowed to work on merchant ships as kitchen hands, coal trimmers, and stokers. In 1945, West Africans were employed as seamen in the context of government concerns about shortages of labor. After World War II, however, French seamen urged that French be hired ahead of foreigners—notwithstanding that many West Africans were French citizens. Between 1954 and 1959, the immigration of seamen, along with many unskilled and low-skilled workers, continued.

After 1960, African immigration to France increased with colonial independence. A multilateral agreement between France and the African states allowed members of the Franco-African Commonwealth to move without restriction to France or to the other African states that had formerly been components of the French empire (namely, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal). African migration to France during the 1960s was usually temporary, lasting about four years. But after 1974—the official date suspending immigration into France—black Africans began to settle in for good.

There are officially 172,689 Africans in France from eighteen nations, making up 4.5 percent of the foreign population, according to the 1982 national census. The largest African group are from Senegal (33,242 people), followed by migrants from Mali (24,340), Cameroun (14,220), Ivory Coast (11,680), and Mauritania (5,060). West Africans work in industry (38 percent), in services (32 percent), in building and civil engineering (8 percent), in domestic services, and in the textile and confectionary industries.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, West Africans were housed in slums, including old factories adapted for housing, in cities such as Marseilles, Rouen, Le Havre, Paris, and Montreuil. In Paris, they were mainly concentrated in the eleventh, twelfth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth arrondissements. In 1962–64, under a 1901 law, associations were created for the purpose of lodging black Africans: Accueil et promotion (Welcome and Support); ASSOTRAF, the Association d’aide sociale aux travailleurs africains en France (Association for Social Aid to African Workers in France); and SOUNIATA, the Association pour le soutien, la dignité et l’unité dans l’accueil aux travailleurs africains (Association for Support, Dignity, and Unity in the Welcome of African Workers). These associations were directly or indirectly created by the government and were run by French political figures who claimed that they were “friends of Africa,” some of them with links to former French colonies. Thus, in the late 1960s and the 1970s, while SONACOTRA took care of the Maghrebis and European migrants such as Portuguese and Yugoslavs, these other associations looked after the West Africans. SONACOTRA began giving rooms to black Africans in the mid 1970s, when it was ordered to do so by the prefecture of Paris. In the Ile-de-France, a quarter of UNAFO’s 126 foyers serve mixed populations, while only 11 of SONACOTRA foyers do.

West African foyers usually house people either from the same region or of the same ethnic origin, or at most perhaps two or three different ethnic groups or nationalities. All or nearly all of the people in these foyers are Muslims. Two main groups are usually to be found in the foyers—the Soninke, or Sarakolle, and the Tukuleur (from the Senegal River Valley, shared by the three countries of Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal). In Paris, the foyers are mostly Malian, while in Les Mureaux and Mantes-La-Jolie (Yvelines), the Senegalese are the majority. There are other ethnic minorities in the foyers as well, such as the Bambara (Mali and Senegal), the Manding (Senegal and Mali), and the Manjak (who are Catholic and come from Senegal and Guinea-Bissau).

The social life of the residents replicates significant features of life in their homelands. All the ethnic groups—except for the Manjak—have strong hierarchical organizations, and despite the overcrowding, divisions between nobles and commoners are respected through invisible barriers. Every man has his place. The head of the community, or the village, is always a man of high birth. Among the Soninke, the head is helped in his task by a council of nobles, who see to the administration of the community or village. The council looks after the morality of the group, monthly dues for food, and the lodging of newcomers or people in need (because of illness or unemployment). It also provides help for the village of origin with mosques, schools, sanitary arrangements, and so on.

Just below, or sometimes at the same level as, the notables stands the marabout. He is very important in the group, serving simultaneously as secretary, confidant, teacher, leader, and talisman-maker, and is usually well trained in qur’anic and Islamic studies. The marabout is also expected to moderate the tendency of the griot—a kind of troubadour and historian—to rekindle ancient quarrels between noble families. The griot is Janus-faced. According to the circumstances, he can act on the “pagan” side of the nobles, rekindling memories of the glorious past of the Soninke people, or he can put on Islamic dress and go hand in hand with the marabout. At the bottom of the social pyramid are the lower categories of traditional craftsmen (cobblers, smiths) and the “slaves”—the descendants of former prisoners of war.

There is a complicity between the noble, the marabout, and the griot—a web of collusion so well spun that the lower-status groups assent to their conditions without making too much fuss, even when and if they are more educated and more knowledgeable about French society than their “masters.” In the Soninke communities, the cooking must always be done by the “slaves.” In return, the “masters” must be lavish toward them, especially during traditional feasts such as those at initiations. On these occasions, the dividing up of space in the meeting rooms reveals the underlying principles of exclusion and inclusion. Women sit apart from men, and Islamic rather than traditional practices are invoked. There is a subtle spatial segregation between nobles and commoners. As for the lower social categories, they are busy helping the nobles and their guests. The boundaries are subtle. Everyone knows where and next to whom to sit.

Residents of the foyers are outspoken and articulate in describing the negative aspects of their lodgings. They perceive their lodgings as “prisons” or “concentration camps,” and individual rooms as “tombs.” Still, despite these criticisms, most West African residents also acknowledge positive aspects of the foyer: “The foyer is my second village”; “It is a place where things go well”; “It is very secure, a welcoming place compared to the aggressiveness of the town”; “In the foyer, people come and go without problems.”

Were the foyers created in order to further the segregation of migrant workers? Whatever the answer, one must acknowledge that foreign residents have transformed the space of the foyers, using it to their liking. In place of the official rules of the foyer, they have substituted unofficial rules of their own.

In the 1970s, the foyers, whether Maghrebi or West African, were strictly supervised by directors who were, for the most part, French army veterans who had served in Indochina, Algeria, or West Africa. Administrative rules were drastic. Visits from people outside the foyer were severely controlled, largely limited to male relatives, at fixed hours and in the television room only. After 8:00 p.m., the director could enter and inspect any room. The director would play off one nationality against another, first of all by separating nationalities into specific floors, and secondly, by emphasizing the cultural or religious differences between nationalities or ethnic groups. This period of military-style rule came to an end after the widespread 1975 strike about living conditions in the foyers. From that time on, the African foyers were open to free visitations and susceptible to “stowaways”—illegal residents from outside.

Nowadays in an individual room there may be the “official” bed, plus two or three folding beds, like the rooms of Mourides or Turks (see Ebin, Mandel, this volume). During weekends, the rooms are filled with visitors in traditional dress, sitting wherever a place can be found, chanting in loud voices, and drinking tea—which is perceived as an Islamic beverage. Meals of meat, or fish, and rice are also served, whereas during the period of military directors, it was forbidden to eat in the rooms. In some rooms of Muslim residents, one can see, among other decorations, a Hegira calendar, pictures of Mecca, ornate qur’anic calligraphy, and perhaps photographs on a table of a spiritual leader or a new mosque in an African village of origin. In the rooms of marabouts or educated Muslims, there are Islamic and Arabic books and a prayer rug in a corner. Thus sanctified, the place can become a site for prayer or religious education, so that space is defined by practice, not convention, much as it is described in several chapters of this book.

In the quest for identity, black Africans have endeavored to appropriate different collective areas of the foyers, including the corridors, the communal dining rooms, and the courtyards. The foyer has become multifunctional—a place of business and a place of worship. In nearly every African foyer, there are traditional activities such as craftsmen’s workshops, markets, and restaurants. The latter are run by women, Malians for the most part, who are helped by “slaves,” and sometimes by unemployed young commoners. The food usually consists of rice, meat stews, and sometimes chicken and chips (called a “European meal”). The price varies between eight and ten francs. The midday meal draws customers from outside, both migrants and French workers, into the foyers.

In most of the foyers, the common rooms and the corridors also serve as marketplaces. The market is usually conducted by men of high rank from the community, and their rooms become warehouses. The market provides different types of products—cigarettes, soap, chewing gum, sweets, African toothpicks, kola nuts. At weekends, the market increases in size, and, in some foyers, it is “sanctified” by such products as religious tapes, prayer rugs, Islamic calendars, religious books for different reading levels, prayer beads, incense, “Indian” perfumes, and even “halal” meat. The markets that specialize in these products are situated in foyers in which the “mosques” and village association meetings draw from five to eight hundred people on weekends.

In summertime, the courtyards of the foyers are taken over by men selling both raw and roasted ears of corn. An ambience conducive to informal socializing is created. The smell of roasted corn fills the air, and people stay up late. These marketplaces become places for meeting, discussion, and the construction and the consolidation of different kinds of identity.

In the 1970s, the landlords began to tolerate workshops in the foyers, so that black Africans could make a living related to their “tradition and culture.” Tailors, cobblers, and smiths carry on their professions in tiny shops—perhaps fifteen square meters for five or six craftsmen. Some of these people work only on weekends; others work every day and even at night—especially tailors at the approach of Islamic festivals.

During the Islamic holiday of the ‘Id (French: Ayd), people of lower status, especially cobblers, become butchers. The slaughtering of sheep in black African foyers began in 1971, after a social commission associated with the sixth national plan advocated support for cultural activities in the foyers. With the money that was allocated for this purpose, black Africans working through the foyers bought sheep for sacrifice at the Islamic new year and during the ‘Ids, and invited lodgers, policemen, and mayors’ delegations for these occasions.

In the France of the 1990s, however, ritual slaughtering has become a big issue, giving non-Muslims presumed moral ground to challenge the Muslim presence. This recalls “moral” causes discussed elsewhere in this volume in relation to Muslims: architectural conservation (Eade), “noise pollution” (Eade), and women’s rights (Bloul). Petitions have been drawn up by humane societies, the National Front, and the French butchers’ lobby to protest this practice. In January 1990, the famous movie star Brigitte Bardot vigorously attacked religious animal slaughter, both Jewish and Muslim, in an interview on French national television. She repeated these attacks in August in Présent (August 1, 1990), a newspaper sympathetic to the National Front, France’s extreme right-wing party. But this time she objected, not only to the Muslim method of animal slaughter, but also to the French government policy, which “tolerates such ritual sacrifices and allows the spread of Islam in France. It’s a shame.” In the meantime, the Conseil de réflexion sur l’Islam en France, composed of Muslims of different nationalities and created in 1990 by the ministries of Interior and Culture, is trying to find ways to resolve this issue.

The foyer is also a place of worship. The first prayer room to be instituted in a black African residence appeared in 1967, located on the ground floor of the foyer “La Commanderie” in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris. The next year a marabout living in the same building transformed his own sixth-floor room into a prayer room. He argued that a “mosque” should not be something given by non-Muslims; Muslims should themselves open their own prayer room. The marabout, who has now returned to Africa, thus drew a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate prayer places.

Only in 1977 did a second foyer introduce a prayer room. Despite this slow beginning, now almost all foyers have prayer rooms, which are subsidized by all residents of the foyer, whether Muslim or not. UNAFO, the principal organization of black African foyers, has, for example, 126 foyers in the Ile-de-France, of which 119 have prayer rooms.

The prayer rooms may be located on any floor—basement, ground floor, or various upper floors. The sizes vary, averaging around thirty to forty square meters. The prayer room is usually well furnished with multicolored carpets and contrasts with the rest of the building in its tidiness. A box for donations is always hung inside the room, next to the exit.

On weekdays, the prayer room may not be more than 20 to 30 percent filled. But on Fridays and during the ‘Ids, it is completely full and people—both residents and outsiders—overflow into the courtyard. On such occasions, the nearby pavements become part of the prayer place, bewildering French neighbors, who talk about being “invaded,” a telling metaphor. Two other dates offer opportunities for gatherings. The first is the Night of Destiny, the 26th to the 27th of the lunar month of Ramadan, when people assemble all night for prayer and recitation of the Qur’an, and food is brought in by the families of the residents and by outsiders. The second opportunity is Mawlud—the Prophet’s birthday.

In some foyers, the prayer rooms are used as classrooms, albeit without tables or chairs. Qur’an and Arabic classes are conducted for children, with the lowest-level group next to the teacher and more advanced groups and individuals scattered about in different corners of the room. For the adults, lectures and talks follow the weekend afternoon prayer (salat al asr).

The “mosque” in the foyer contributes to the formation of Muslim identity. Even nonpracticing Muslims seem proud of its existence. The territory of the “mosque” is perceived, in principle, as a base that belongs to all Muslims, and, as such, it is a symbolic place of safety.

North African Arabs in the Foyers

The collective life in the foyer of labor migrants faced with poverty and isolated from country and family would seem to offer the potential of comradeship, even of political action. The very fact of residence in a foyer has been important on occasion, as when foyer residents organized rent strikes in the 1970s. As the strikes led to improvements in conditions in the foyers, especially the relaxation of visiting rules noted above, tenants’ organizations appeared to lose their raison d’être. Nor have the Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan amicales, or “friendship organizations,” been very effective. All tend to be small groups dedicated to performing useful services, such as repatriating dead bodies. North Africans certainly tend to identify with their countries of origin, but this is not manifested through adherence to voluntary organizations such as the amicales, and their national sentiments are more cultural than political.

Islamic practices, often centered on the foyer, are typically part of those cultural sentiments. A 1985 survey conducted by Michalak in the Marseilles area included questions such as:

Of being Muslim, Arab, and [Moroccan/Algerian/Tunisian], which is most important for you?

How do you spend Ramadan in France?

Do you fast when you work?

Do you believe in God? Pray? Give alms?

Have you made or do you plan to make the hajj?

Do you drink alcohol? Eat non-halal meat?

Are you a good Muslim?

Have you changed your practice in France?

Is there a place to pray where you work?

Have you given money for a mosque?

Are you a member of an Islamic organization?

What is your opinion about Islamic political groups?

To the question of primary identity, all but one of those interviewed replied that their main identity was as Muslims. “There is no God but God,” one worker said; “that comes before anything else.” Some denied having any identity besides being Muslim; “My only nationality is God,” said one. National identity usually came next, then regional identity. Everyone interviewed affirmed belief in God and in Muhammad as His Prophet.

All those interviewed, both formally and informally, claimed to fast during Ramadan, even those who did heavy manual labor on farms. As one person described it:

During Ramadan it’s hard and tiring, especially when Ramadan comes in the summer with long days and heat. I come home and fix dinner, eat at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.—I fast longer than sunset because I have to cook. Then I go to the mosque [prayer room in the foyer] until 1:00 a.m. for the prayer—yes, for about 2 ½ hours. Then I come back to my room and sleep and get up at 2:00 a.m., eat, and go to work. I hardly sleep during Ramadan.

Another said:

I work better when I fast, especially after the second or third day. I fast, I pray in the evening, I read the Qur’an, and I work. My children fast too.

Far fewer people pray than fast. About half of those interviewed performed the daily prayers—usually cumulatively, rather than at the five prescribed intervals, in order to avoid interrupting their work. Nobody interviewed had a workplace with a prayer room.

The foyers are sometimes focal points because of their prayer rooms. A typical prayer room in a foyer has minimal furnishings, such as a rack for shoes; rugs, which are rolled up and placed on shelves when they are not in use; a set of five cardboard clocks with movable hands posted on the wall to indicate the five times of prayer; and a small carpet with the image of the Ka‘ba mounted on the wall to indicate the direction of prayer (fig. 17 below). Some prayer rooms in the foyers used to be canteens, which, among other things, served alcoholic beverages, but were converted to prayer rooms at the request of the residents. This is an example of the adaptation of French space by Muslims.

On Fridays, an imam usually leads the prayer in the foyer prayer room and gives the Friday sermon. One respondent described the imam in his foyer as follows:

Our imam is sixty-three years old and is Algerian. On Fridays he gives a khutba—about Muslim life, the life of the Prophet, the words of God, what things are halal and haram. The imam was a worker, and we pay him with donations. People who earn good wages and don’t have large family responsibilities give 50 or 100 francs a month each. One of the foyer residents replaces the imam for the Friday sermon when he is on vacation. On weekdays, anyone among those present, usually someone older, can lead the prayer.

The prayer rooms at the foyers are usually open to anyone, from within or outside the foyer, and outsiders do come in to pray, especially on Fridays and especially in places with no mosque. Of course, many pray privately. One agricultural worker said that he worked every day except Sunday and prayed in the fields. So attendance at the Friday prayer is not a reflection of the numbers of Muslims who actually pray.

One of the foyer residents told me that he sometimes prayed at his workplace in a relatively unfrequented room where broken equipment was stored:

One day about two years ago—I’ve been working there for eight years now—I put down my cardboard in the tower in front of the door and was praying. Then my foreman came in. He was with a big boss of the company visiting from Paris, and the director of the refinery and a bunch of engineers—a whole crowd. I said to myself, he’s going to say I’m stealing time from my job, and fire me. Well, I continued my prayer, and they visited the room as if I wasn’t there, and left. Later I saw the superintendent and asked him about it, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. He said yes, he had taken the group on a tour, but he hadn’t seen me. I asked one of the other people who was in the group, and he hadn’t seen me either.

The factory supervisors may have been avoiding potential controversy. The worker, however, believed that because he was engaged in prayer, he was rendered invisible and under divine protection from any harm.

The North Africans generally agree that it would be a good idea for there to be a real mosque to pray in—not just a room set aside for prayer in a secular building. As one worker said:

I read in the newspaper the other day that there are 450 mosques in France and 33 in Bouches-du-Rhône. We Muslims should take care of building the mosques, and the consulates and the North African governments can help us. You have to get an authorization from the city hall to build one. I’ve given money for mosques. [Here] we need to get a bigger place to pray, to be on our own. There’s a really good, big mosque in Marseilles, near the old city gate.

No worker in the sample had yet been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, although they all said they would like to go some day.

North African workers often try to time their vacations so that they can participate in zardas, the annual festivals at rural North African shrines. One worker said:

The zarda of Sidi Tahar, who was a son of Sidi Abdelkader, is always in the late summer, after the harvest, starting on a Wednesday afternoon and lasting until Thursday morning, with a hathra (ecstatic dance) and a draouch (divination), but which week the zarda will be is always set at the last minute. Nobody ever has to tell me when it will be. I just wake up in the morning and I know. I go to work and tell the boss, I have to go, and he says, go. I’ve never been refused.

Another worker expressed an objection to zardas, reflecting the opinion of reformers and some transnational Islamic movements:

The zarda is an error, a false Islam. You can’t ask a marabout like Sidi Belkacem for help. He wasn’t a prophet. Muhammad was the last prophet. You can’t ask Muhammad for help either. You have to ask God.

It is possible that the status of being a member of a Muslim minority in France tends to make some workers more Muslim than if they had stayed at home. That is, people become ascriptively Muslim when they are born into Islamic settings, where minimal religious practice—for example, fasting—is expected. In a non-Muslim setting, practice of Islam may become more self-conscious and linked to expressing a group identity.

In a situation of being part of a Muslim minority and encountering hardship and adversity, some migrants may become more observant Muslims, or join Islamic groups that can organize with greater freedom abroad than at home. The phenomenon of being treated as a Muslim by non-Muslims also reinforces Islamic identity. None of the workers I interviewed, however, expressed enthusiasm for Islamic political movements, for which they often use the pejorative term khawangiyya (from the ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood). One worker associated Islamic political movements with sabotage. Another, evincing absorption of French values (cf. Bloul, this volume), remarked, “Politics and religion should not mix; you can talk about politics in the amicale, but not in the [prayer room].” Several spoke of increased practice:

I prayed from when I was about seven because my father made me, and in school, and then for a while after I finished school, until I was eighteen. When I came to France that changed. I found another system of life. From 1971 to 1978, I worked in a factory in the Alps where they made jam and tomato paste and other preserves. In 1978, they wanted me to work in the kitchen and make preserves from pork. I explained that I couldn’t. They said they would fire me if I didn’t, but I wouldn’t set foot in that kitchen. Then I came here, where I had friends. I found work after only two days. Ever since then, I pray every day.

One might argue that many people have become more observant in Islamic countries too, especially in these times when Islamic practice is being intensified. In this instance and in many other instances, however, the return to Islamic practice was brought on by an experience of discrimination abroad, which makes migration an important element in individual religious experience.

There is a political advantage to emphasizing Muslim identity in France. In separating church and state, France guarantees religious freedom. Since Catholics and Jews have the right to build churches and synagogues, for example, Muslims logically have the right to build mosques. There has been discussion in France of creating a commission for Islamic representation. Thus workers might adopt an Islamic stance, not only out of conviction, but also as a strategy for dealing with the French authorities under certain circumstances.

Ethnicity in the Foyer: Interaction Between West Africans and Arabs

In mixed settings, generally speaking, Maghrebis and black Africans do not emphasize their ethnic or national identities. Still, the foyer bears in itself the seeds of potential conflict. An illustration of this is a survey carried out in fifteen foyers in the Lyons region in 1978, since which time things have changed very little. The survey noted that quarrels frequently occurred over the use of kitchens. Muslims complained that European residents cooked pork on nearby stoves, which tainted their meals. Disputes between Muslims and Christians, between Turks and Maghrebis, and between Algerians and Moroccans arose for any number of reasons.

A serious example of strained relations between black Africans and Maghrebis took place in 1975 in a foyer in Villejuif (a suburban town near Paris), when a small incident developed into a major riot. A Maghrebi poured water down on some black Africans who were speaking loudly under his window. This escalated into a violent interethnic conflict, which lasted for three days, despite the intervention of the French Special Police (the CRS). There were six deaths in all—three on each side.

A basic source of contention is the difference in community life and the use of space in the foyers. The Maghrebis, in part because they have been in France longer, have become more individualistic. The black Africans have not only come more recently, but, as villagers, resist passage from wider spaces to the tiny and orderly spaces of the foyer. As a result, black Africans are seen as encroaching upon the territory of others.

Black Africans seek to increase their numbers. When a room becomes vacant, they press for it to be rented to someone from their community. In some of the foyers in Seine-Saint-Denis, this policy has worked so well that the Maghrebis have left one by one. Maghrebis tend to cook and eat individually, while for the black Africans a meal is a major social occasion for the exchange of news, jokes, and laughter. The black Africans thus gradually appropriate the whole collective space as their exclusive domain.

Faced with this situation, the Maghrebis may simply leave for private lodgings in towns; others stay, but withdraw into their rooms, which they furnish with television sets, telephones, and drinks (as in Val-de-Marne, for example). The majority of North Africans try to lodge with other North Africans through lobbying the residents’ committees.

Some, however, confront the black Africans on religious grounds. They equate true Islam with Arabs only, and stigmatize the religious practices of black Africans. As Arabs, they look down upon black Africans as people who belong to Sufi turuq and are ignorant of the Arabic language, and therefore of the Qur’an. They try to assume the lead in the collective prayer in the prayer room and to exclude black Africans from directing prayers.

Foyer managers tried to use this division to break the strikes of the 1970s. Many foyer managers brought numerous black Africans into the SONACOTRA foyers, hoping to divert discontent into intercommunity conflicts. In fact, the two groups combined against SONACOTRA. Both French trade unions and the Algerian amicale tardily tried in vain to take over the strikes. The government’s actions, including deportations, only hardened the resolve of the strikers. In the end, the strikes not only led to some improvement in living conditions, they gave the workers the opportunity to establish their own residents’ committees, control the use of the foyers, and play a role in forging new identities.

One aftermath of the 1970s strikes has been the assertion of an Islamic identity. At that time, calls for the creation of more prayer rooms became more insistent. Requests for facilities for Islamic practice are clearly older than the Khomeini era. The “foyer mosques” are a mark of Islamic identity for all Muslims, be they regular or irregular in their attendance at prayers. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Maghrebis were reluctant to pray under a black African imam. Yet even then, the significant distinction began to be that between regular and irregular mosque attenders.

To claim to be a Muslim by birth was no longer sufficient. There appeared a coalition of observant Muslims, both black and Arab—who organized their lives apart from the others, offering an alternative to the traditional organization described above. They offered one another mutual support, especially in relation to the pilgrimage. On occasions such as Ramadan, and especially the Night of Destiny, they regularly assembled in the “mosque” for qur’anic recitation and prayer.

The brothers in the faith began campaigns to purify the “pagan” parts of the foyers. Beer was no longer to be served in the foyers, and prostitutes were forbidden entry to them. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” became the rule. The regular attenders began their dawa (“mission”) among the infrequent attenders, who were invited to attend religious lectures. Celebrations of Islamic festivals became more elaborate. There were frequent discussions of the importance of true jihad during Ramadan. Clocks were displayed to show times of prayer (fig. 17).

Figure 17. Clocks set to show prayer times as part of an effort within the foyer to encourage Islamic practice. Photograph by Laurence Michalak.
[Full Size]

Those who kept on living as usual—especially younger Maghrebis and black Africans—were marginalized as black sheep. Differences also emerged among the regular mosque attenders, again a cleavage not following lines of nationality. The believers in turuq opposed the people of the hadith. The Soninke belong for the most part to the Jama‘at Tabligh (see Metcalf, this volume). The Soninke stigmatize the Tukuleur (who are faithful to the Tijaniyya tariqa) and tend to associate instead with the Tabligh Maghrebis. In some foyers in Les Mureaux (Yvelines), the prayer rooms are divided in two after the main prayer of the day. On one side the turuq believers gather in a circle, performing their wird (special recitation of a tariqa). On the other side, the Tabligh assemble under the direction of their amir to introduce newcomers to the finer points of the true religion. The rivalry between religious groups gets more acute during Ramadan and on the eve of the hajj. Every group tries to draw in more people to attend lectures. This rivalry divides Maghrebis and black Africans among themselves.


The foyers, which were built to provide sleeping quarters for transitory men, have been transformed into multifunctional institutions for long-term and permanent residents. The different functions of foyer space accord with different aspects of migrants’ identities. Thus the foyer residents engage in social interaction as Soninke or Tatouin in one context, Tunisian or Malian in another, sometimes as consumers, sometimes as Muslims.

In examining the foyers, we have called attention to the significant ways in which black West Africans and North African Arabs act to appropriate and transform foyer space. However, these foyer residents operate within contexts of considerable constraint. They cannot truly “appropriate” space in the foyer setting, and they can “transform” it to only a very limited extent. The foyer buildings are not “theirs” in any sense of ownership. Architecturally, the foyers are buildings conceived by non-Muslims for ends that have nothing to do with community, religious or otherwise. On the contrary, the foyer both isolates individuals (as in the small suites of the SONACOTRA model) or concentrates them in stifling density (as in the case of the West African foyers in the Ile de France and in some of the non-SONACOTRA foyers). To the extent that foreign workers succeed in adapting this foreign space, they work against the grain, making superficial modifications, within local and national political climates that are at best neutral and at worst explicitly hostile. Islamic practices such as prayer, ‘Id, and wird have been one way in which workers have defined themselves as best they could and made this space their own. The capacity of the workers to create meaningful relations and ritual is the more dramatic in such harsh settings.

Works Cited

This essay is based on the research of Moustapha Diop on the predominantly black West African foyers of the Ile-de-France and of Laurence Michalak on the predominantly Arab North African foyers of the Bouches-du-Rhône.

Barou, J. 1978. “Les Causes de sous-location dans les foyers SONACOTRA de la région lyonnaise.” Report. Paris: SONACOTRA. UC-eLinks

Brun-Melin, Annick. 1989. Les Foyers vus par les professionels. Brochure. Paris: Union nationale des Associations gestionnaires des foyers de travailleurs migrants (UNAFO). June. UC-eLinks

Diop, Moustapha. 1988. “Stéréotypes et stratégies dans la communauté musulmane de France.” In Les Musulmans dans la société française, ed. R. Leveau and G. Kepel, pp. 77–87. Paris: Presses nationales des sciences politiques, Fondation nationale de science politique. UC-eLinks

——————. 1989. “Immigration et religion: Les Musulmans negro-africains en France.” Migrations-Société 1: 45–57. UC-eLinks

d’Orso, Louis (president). 1980. L’Association des Foyers de Provence et de Corse à 30 ans: 1950–1980. Brochure. Paris: AFPC. UC-eLinks

Gagneux, Michel (president). N.d. [ca. 1989]. SONACOTRA: L’Habitat en mouvement. Brochure. Paris: SONACOTRA. UC-eLinks

Ginesy-Galano, Mireille. 1984. Les Immigrés hors la cité: Le Système d’encadrement dans les foyers (1973–1982). Paris: L’Harmattan / CIEM. UC-eLinks

Labbez, Joelle. 1989. Les Soviets des foyers. Paris: Editions Albatros. UC-eLinks

Leveau, Rémy, and Gilles Kepel. 1985. Culture islamique et attitudes politiques dans la population musulmane en France: Enquête éffectuée pendant le mois de Ramadan (mai–juin) 1985. Paris: Fondation nationale des sciences politiques. UC-eLinks

5. Making Room versus Creating Space

The Construction of Spatial Categories by Itinerant Mouride Traders

Victoria Ebin

Studies on how people use space generally focus on groups identified with a particular setting. The Mourides, however, are itinerant traders who are nearly full-time travelers, constantly on the move in search of new goods and clients. These traders, who belong to a Sufi brotherhood based in Senegal, have neither the time nor the resources to transform their living quarters in any radical way.

This essay explores how, despite their transient lives, the Mourides use and appropriate space in ways that are specifically their own. If no one hears a tree fall in the forest, does it make a noise? If no Mourides are in the room, is the room, in any definable way, Mouride?

The Mouride brotherhood is a Sufi tariqa organized around a founding saint, Cheikh Amadu Bamba (ca. 1857–1927), a holy man who attracted a large following in the confused period following the French conquest of Senegal. Originally a rural brotherhood, the Mourides assumed a powerful role in national government by the late 1920s through their role in peanut farming. With the drop in peanut prices, drought, and the decreasing fertility of the soil, large numbers of Mourides have migrated to the cities over the past two decades. They have now become a trading diaspora, with trade networks stretching from Dakar to western Europe and on to Jidda and Hong Kong. In their long boubous, with red-and-blue-striped plastic bags, they are familiar figures in the wholesale districts of major capital cities in Europe and North America, and have been sighted in Istanbul (Le Soleil, August 22, 1992).

Despite their rural backgrounds and often barely functional French, they leave their homes in rural Senegal to make long intercontinental trips.[1] While they may occasionally pause for a few months, they are virtually nonstop travelers, with a beat that covers a good portion of the globe. As one Mouride put it, “Our homeland [in western Senegal] is built on sand, and, like the sand, we are blown everywhere.…Nowadays you can go to the ends of the earth and see a Mouride wearing a wool cap with a pom-pom selling something to someone” (fig. 18).

Figure 18. A Mouride wearing the characteristic hat with pom-pom, Dakar. Photograph by Victoria Ebin.
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Mouride History

By the end of the nineteenth century, Senegal was almost completely Islamized. Islamic movements had been present in the region since the eleventh century, but at the end of the eighteenth century, the religion became more implanted when warriors from the north attempted to create Islamic states in Wolof kingdoms whose rulers were animist or only semi-Islamized (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 13). Battles between militant Muslims and animist chiefs continued for many years and virtually destroyed the social organization of Wolof society. By the mid nineteenth century, the region was divided by internal strife.

The Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya, Islamic brotherhoods that have their origins in North Africa and the Middle East, appeared in Senegal during the time of upheaval and division in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 27). Based on the veneration of Islamic saints, who were regarded as carriers of baraka, or grace, they were a powerful unifying force and became centers of resistance against the animist aristocrats and the French colonizers, offering a haven to those who wanted to flee the French administration or the local chiefs (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 26).

The Mouride brotherhood alone had its origins in Senegal. Its appearance is associated with a series of crises—the disintegration of social and political structures after years of internal warfare, the French conquest, and the introduction of cash-crop agriculture (Copans 1972: 19–33, cited in Diop 1984: 46). Cheikh Amadu Bamba was from a learned Muslim family that had links with both the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya. Initially, he drew followers from many levels of society, mostly artisans, traders, and slaves, who more than other members of the community had something to gain from the Mouride doctrine of hard work as the way to salvation. He also won over local rulers, for whom Mouridism represented a nonmilitary form of resistance to colonial rule (Diop 1984: 45).

The French initially viewed Amadu Bamba as a threat to their fragile authority, repeatedly sending him into exile, first to Gabon, then to southern Mauritania, and then to a remote region of Senegal. During his many years of solitude, he wrote voluminously and created a substantial body of religious writing, now housed in Touba, the Mouride center. He addressed the murid, or seeker after God, and the term gave the movement its name, Muridiyya. Exile confirmed Amadu Bamba’s status as a saint. Upon each return, he was greeted by increasing numbers of admirers and followers.[2]

Toward 1912, Mouride relations with the French improved, and Mourides became actively involved with French agricultural projects. Mouride leaders organized their followers into efficient work groups, which cleared and cultivated land for peanut production (with sometimes disastrous results for the Fulani pastoralists).

More than any of the other brotherhoods, the Mourides became an economic community, united by an ethic of hard work and an internal organization that eventually made them the country’s top peanut producers.The Mourides had certain qualities that fostered this role. First, Mouride doctrine emphasized work, discipline, and prayer, and valued physical labor. Indeed, Cheikh Ibra Fall, Amadu Bamba’s foremost disciple, or taalibe, preached that fervent dedication to work replaced the obligations to pray and fast. Second, the leaders of the brotherhood displayed unusual organizational abilities in creating a highly disciplined work force among their taalibes. Finally, the cheikhs were highly skilled in mediating between the peasants and the French authorities (Fatton 1987: 98–99). As producers of one-quarter of the country’s total crop, Mourides acquired political power in the administration that has continued until today (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 2).

One feature of the cheikhs’ organizational genius was the work group, which Donal Cruise O’Brien has described as “probably the single institution which has most contributed to the brotherhood’s success” (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 163). These groups also provided some education for the taalibes. Only after ten years of labor did taalibes receive their own land to farm, and even then they continued to work one day a week, generally Wednesday, for the cheikh. Today, when more Mourides are working in Dakar’s markets than in the fields, a delegation goes from store to store collecting money for the cheikhs every Wednesday.

Under Mamadou Mustapha, Amadu Bamba’s son, who succeeded him as khalifa-general, the Mourides became increasingly bureaucratized. Amadu Bamba’s saintly qualities and “charismatic authority” gave way to hierarchy as kinsmen and associates, and their descendants in turn, assumed positions of authority (Robinson 1987: 2). The current and fifth khalifa-general is Serigne Salyiou, another of Amadu Bamba’s sons.

With the transition to urban life and the migration of many Mourides abroad, the brotherhood has maintained its close ties by emphasizing the relationship between the cheikh and the taalibe. For a migrant, who may spend many years outside Senegal, the Mouride da’ira (Arabic pl. dawa’ir, circle, association) is crucial in maintaining contact with his cheikh and with Touba.

Each da’ira is founded to honor a particular cheikh, whose taalibes meet regularly in hotel rooms and apartments across western Europe and North America. They meet regularly to sing the qasa’ids, poems written in Arabic by Cheikh Amadu Bamba, and to share a meal (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 251).

Each da’ira elects officeholders, who keep in close touch with the cheikhs in Senegal. They collect money at each meeting to send back to the cheikh or, more typically, to the khalifa-general in memory of Serigne Touba (Cheikh Amadu Bamba). Important cheikhs, the khalifas of various lineages, have many da’iras scattered throughout other African countries, in Europe, and in America, which they generally visit once a year.

One of the most important da’iras in France, for example, is that of Serigne Mbacke Sokhna Lo, a great-grandson of Cheikh Amadu Bamba and son of Cheikh Mbacke, a major figure in the brotherhood. His appointed representative, who is in Lyons, is responsible for organizing the local da’ira and also makes regular visits to the cheikh’s other da’iras in Europe.

Da’iras are also organized by occupation and by neighborhood. Sandaga market in Dakar has several da’iras that meet regularly on the roof of the market while tailors, gold workers, and factory workers in some towns have created their own da’iras.

Da’iras were initially for Mourides who had left the countryside for towns in Senegal, but today, with the large numbers of Mourides whose involvement in trade leads them to travel nonstop, they have acquired a new importance as a meeting place for Mourides on the road.

The Mouride Economy Today

Mourides are now involved in trade at all levels, from selling on the streets to organizing a flourishing international electronics trade. The majority of Mourides, however, are street peddlers, bana-bana or modou-modou (a nickname for Mamadou in the Baol region of Senegal, whose people are believed to be particularly astute and hard-working, and where many of the street peddlers come from).

The Mouride street peddlers have been characterized as “inward-looking and conservative” in contrast to the Mouride students and ex-students now living in Europe and North America.[3] The students are active proselytizers and have made many converts among other migrant groups in France, while the peddlers prefer to live among themselves, limiting their contact with the outside world to work.

The bana-bana’s style is essentially the same wherever he goes. He deals in whatever he can sell, but for economic and practical reasons—quick turnover and small size—most specialize in Asian-made watches, “fantasy” jewelry, and novelty items such as fluorescent shoelaces and American cosmetics.

Being Mouride shapes a large part of their lives, whether they are urban migrants to Dakar or have settled abroad. A group of street peddlers from a village in the Baol region of Senegal live together in a room in Dakar—the same room that street-peddling migrants from their village have rented since the 1970s. Once a week they visit the local wholesalers, who are also Mouride, and pool their resources to buy large quantities of merchandise. Each peddler then takes a portion of the goods and sets out to sell it on his special “beat.” Bana-bana living in New York follow essentially the same routine. Every week, a household of migrants from Darou-Mousty in Senegal who now live in the Bronx set off for Chinatown to buy wholesale goods to resell.

Some bana-bana trade only seasonally. Mustapha and Moussa, for example, go to Marseilles every summer. They buy goods from their primary Mouride wholesaler and then set out for the small villages between Aix, Avignon, and Marseilles. Fellow Mourides have staked out the curve of Mediterranean beaches as their territory. At the end of the summer, most return to Senegal but some make their winter base in Lyons or Paris.

The circuit of one itinerant trader, Amadu Dieng, exemplifies Mouride entrepreneurial skills and adaptability. He set out from Senegal for Marseilles with two thousand “Ouagadougou” bracelets. In Marseilles, he stayed in a residential hotel with a cousin, whom he left some bracelets to sell, and also bought some Italian jewelry from a Mouride wholesaler. On to Paris, where he bought leather clothes made by Mouride tailors and items in the Turkish garment district to resell in New York. He sold everything in New York and bought up beauty products and music cassettes. Then on to Cameroon, where he sold the cassettes and sent the beauty products back to Senegal with a cousin. He then headed north to Libya to find work for a few months to make money to return to New York.

Other Mourides in Europe—students, tailors, or those with white-collar jobs—also rely on trade to supplement their incomes (“pour arrondir la fin du mois”). They too may become highly mobile at certain times of year as they take up trade, traveling across Europe or North America and relying on the brotherhood’s scattered communities for lodging and essential connections in the wholesale districts.

Mouride tailors who specialize in leather, for example, often become bana-bana in the summer, which is the off-season in the leather trade. One Mouride leather tailor in Paris works six months of the year in a Turkish-owned workshop and spends the rest of the year selling on the streets in Milan and Marseilles. Students too are integrated into the trade community by kinsmen and friends, who supply them with goods and teach them the strategies necessary to street peddling.

Unlike Amadu Dieng, who had obtained a multiple-entry visa for the United States, most bana-bana, once in New York, remain for some time, since they are not certain they can return. Mor Ndiaye, for example, sold sunglasses and umbrellas on a corner near Times Square for four years, returned to Senegal for a vacation, and was unable to get a visa to return. He now sells shoes from a kiosk in Dakar’s central market and plans how to get back to America.

Mouride businessmen who started their careers as bana-bana still travel extensively, buying and selling on a vaster scale. They buy television sets, VCRs, radios, cassettes, and compact-disc players in Jidda, Hong Kong, and New York, which they resell in Senegal. They also buy up smaller items such as African-American beauty products and television sets in New York. At least one Mouride trader who started out as a street peddler owes his fortune (several stores in Dakar and a factory making “hair extenders”) to the sale of such accessories—he was the first to sell Ultra-sheen products in Senegal.

Migration as a Theme in Mouride History

Mourides have been migrants since the early days of the brotherhood. In the past, cheikhs migrated with their taalibes to “pioneer lands” in the hinterlands in search of new farmland (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 60). Since their farming practices deplete the soil, Mourides were always in need of land, and even today Mourides continue to migrate within Senegal in search of new land.

The lives of New York street peddlers are also shaped by long years of travel. While other people from inhospitable regions migrate to establish themselves elsewhere, Mouride traders have continued, at least until now, to maintain their primary attachment to Senegal. A common saying is, “We are like the birds who think of home when flying high above the earth.”

Mourides find an explanation and some consolation for their transient lives in the brotherhood’s history. They say that travel leads to knowledge, xam-xam, which is essential to a young man’s education.[4] Travel and life in another country, and perhaps a foreign wife, add to one’s understanding of the world. The number of countries one has “done” (“faire la France [l’Italie, le Maroc, etc.]”) and the languages one speaks are frequent subjects of conversation at Mouride gatherings.

Travel has become an almost sacred activity for Mourides, and its special status can be seen in the large round house in Diourbel where Cheikh Amadu Bamba was confined by the French, where his suitcases have been preserved along with his books (fig. 19). By also becoming travelers, Mourides emphasize their ties with their founding saint.

Figure 19. Cheikh Amadu Bamba’s suitcases, Diourbel, Senegal. Photograph by Victoria Ebin.
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Travel entails hardship, and one Mouride trader, a migrant for thirteen years, explained that Amadu Bamba wanted his followers to leave home to test their faith. Another underlined the theme: “We know misery so well that we have come to love it, so much that now we conjugate it as a verb, ‘Moi, je misère à New York; toi, tu misères à Paris.’ ”

The Mourides’ Spiritual and Spatial Center

Despite their highly mobile way of life and their many years abroad, Mourides’ point of orientation is Touba, the site of the mosque where Amadu Bamba is buried.[5] Touba (“finest or sweetest”) is the name given by Amadu Bamba to the village where he had a prophetic revelation and where the Mourides’ central mosque was later built. Its construction, authorized by the French in 1931, was undertaken by the first khalifa-general. The cost, not including the labor, has been estimated at equivalent to £1 million sterling, and it took thirty years build.[6]

The Touba mosque is said to be the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, with the central minaret almost three hundred feet high, four lesser minarets, fourteen domes, and two ablution baths (Nguyen Van-Chi-Bonnardel 1978: 869). Since its completion, the brotherhood has not built another major mosque. It has only one in Dakar, while other brotherhoods have built mosques throughout the city. In explanation, Mourides cite Amadu Bamba, who said that a true Mouride can pray anywhere as long as he is holy and “clean.”

The mosque at Touba is a point of reference for Mourides everywhere. Friday prayers led by the khalifa-general draw Mourides from all over Senegal. The annual celebration, the Magal, which marks the anniversary of Amadu Bamba’s return from exile, brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to Touba. Mourides living abroad make a special effort to return to Senegal for the celebration, because they can then meet up with the greatest numbers of their comrades and kin.

Touba is a repository of Mouride history. The library there contains Amadu Bamba’s writings, proclaimed by the faithful to weigh seven tons. Guides point out the well where Mame Diarra Boussou, Amadu Bamba’s mother, went to draw water. The tallest minaret is named Lampe Fall, after Cheikh Ibra Fall, the most illustrious of Amadu Bamba’s taalibes. Key events in Mouride history, Amadu Bamba’s visions, and crucial moments from the Mouride past are identified with fixed points at Touba.

Touba is so closely identified with Amadu Bamba that he is called “Serigne Touba.” Moreover, this conjunction of sacred place and person now includes his descendants, and people announce the visit of a cheikh by saying, “Touba is coming to town.”

For Mouride travelers, Touba is the central point to which they always return, yet this center is infinitely reproducible. Throughout their travels, Mourides say Touba is always with them. They carry this sacred place in their hearts. As a young Mouride cheikh said, “Touba is a state of mind.”

A favorite theme in Senegalese art, often depicted in paintings on glass, shows French sailors taking Amadu Bamba away on a boat. Since they refuse to let him pray in the boat, he has placed his prayer rug on the water and is kneeling on the waves, surrounded, in one illustration, by a circle of leaping fish. According to Mouride accounts, when he returned to the boat, the sailors found it was covered with sand from Touba. Mourides abroad continue, in their own way and less dramatically, to recreate Touba in their many settings.

Touba in Marseilles

Marseilles is a crossroads for Mouride traders coming from the north (Lyons, Paris, and Brussels) and those heading south for the French and Italian coasts. Many Mouride wholesalers are based here, and “runners” carrying goods from southern Europe, Africa, and as far away as Hong Kong pass through this port city.

The Senegalese live mainly between the Gare Saint-Charles and the port. The tiny twisting streets—rue du Tapis Vert, rue Bagnoir, rue Thubaneau—that spangle the quartier are lined with narrow, shabby hotels and apartment buildings, wholesale stores and warehouses. The people who work and live here are generally not French. Most are from the other side of the Mediterranean—Algeria, Morocco, and West Africa.

This old quarter of the town has been more or less abandoned by the French and taken over by immigrants. Nonresidents who come here are generally looking for drugs or prostitutes, and fights are common. Nights are lively with sirens and flashing lights as police control the neighborhood. They occasionally throw tear gas bombs at groups that have become too large and stop people to demand their identity papers.

Marseilles may be notorious in France because of its level of organized crime, but neighborhoods where Mourides live in other places tend to be similar. Given their need for low rents and proximity to wholesale stores and the train station, it is not surprising that Mourides tend to live in neighborhoods where it is better not to go out after dark.With the heavy police presence and dangerous streets, the Senegalese remain psychologically and geographically enclosed in their quarter. They have little reason to venture out of their neighborhood except on business.

Even a shared Muslim identity does not broaden their social relations. Outnumbered by North Africans, whom they refer to as “Arabs,” and with whom relations are rarely amiable, Mourides stick to themselves. Nor is Mouridism a vehicle out of their narrow lives as it has been for Mouride students, who have made converts among other groups (Diop 1985).

Relations with French neighbors are generally not much better. The French complain, as they do about other immigrant groups, of noise, cooking smells, and irregular hours. In return, the Mouride traders have their own views of the French. “What they’re good for is butter and cheese,” said one peddler.

Another joined in to describe a recent experience in Bordeaux, where a woman had allowed her dog to walk across his wares, saying, “Well, at least he’s from Bordeaux.” In such settings, Senegalese living abroad tend to stick together, creating a place of warmth against an outside world that is so pointedly unfriendly.

Inside Mouride Space

For Mouride traders on the road, home is a series of hotel rooms and apartments. In Marseilles, they live in residential hotels that resemble boarding houses, where they typically have developed good relations with the owners. The air of camaraderie, a welcome change from the streets, resembles that of a college dormitory.

Despite Mouride claims that they are never far from Touba, their rooms do not outwardly bear much resemblance to anything in their capital. They do, however, look like every other Mouride immigrant’s apartment. Furniture is minimal, with one or two beds supplemented with mattresses brought out at night. Sleeping two to a bed, and with mattresses covering the floor, the population of the rooms is far above whatever the hotel initially intended. People generally sit on beds rather than chairs. A corner may be designated for cooking, or at least for making tea.

Emblems of Touba are the principal form of decoration. On the walls are posters of Mouride cheikhs, most often a copy of the only photograph of Cheikh Amadu Bamba—a slight figure in white with the end of his turban covering the lower half of his face. Sometimes, there are posters of other important cheikhs. One of the most popular is Cheikh Ibra Fall superimposed on the minaret that bears his name. Other items, equally transportable, are cassettes of the qasidas.

Amet’s room in Marseilles is typical of traders’ rooms everywhere. Because he is a major wholesaler, his room is especially crowded with people and merchandise. He receives visits all day long from bana-bana, who come to buy merchandise from him, to do business, to socialize, and to see the visiting cheikhs who stay with him. Wholesalers and “runners” from Italy, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and New York also meet there.

Amet holds court on his bed, seated on a satin bedspread, handing around samples of the latest arrivals—handfuls of jewelry from Italy or tangled heaps of shoelaces recently arrived from Spain. People come for sociability as well as for business. Several Senegalese come regularly for lunch and are joined by others who gather to drink the three glasses of tea customary during the long afternoons.

Crowded living conditions among migrants may seem due to lack of means, but values attached to sociability and the community also account for the large numbers who may occupy a space. Questioned about his noisy neighbors, a Mouride convalescing in a crowded ward of Bellevue hospital in New York replied, “Il y a ceux qui aiment la paix et ceux qui aiment les gens. La paix c’est la mort” (“There are those who love peace and those who love people. Peace is death”).

The Senegalese, moreover, may count more than one place as home. Their more diffuse notion of family generates a greater choice of places to go to feel “at home.” Migrants abroad may sleep, eat, drink tea, and spend time in different households.

Invisible Architecture: Choreography, Time, and Space

Whenever possible, Mourides living in hotels designate rooms for specific purposes. Mbaye’s room in Marseilles is the kitchen where neighbors take turns preparing meals. Amet’s is a favorite place for drinking tea. The largest room is for the weekly da’ira meeting. In New York’s Parkview Hotel, women have transformed their rooms into restaurants, where they sell ceebu jen (Wolof: rice with fish) to street peddlers and hotel residents.

But in these crowded living conditions, sometimes all activities must take place in the same room—praying, eating, watching TV, and doing business. Time, however, can be manipulated in the use of space. The simplest way to expand space, to make a single room serve a number of purposes—meeting room, kitchen, bedroom—is to separate these activities in time. These temporal divisions can be just as effective as spatial ones in separating activities. Occupying a room for a series of different purposes over time (diachronically) is equivalent to occupying several rooms.

Sometimes, however, these activities must all take place in the same room at the same time with no separations in space or time. People are praying, eating, and watching TV in the same room all at once. While these activities are adjacent and simultaneous, a difference in the quality of time separates them. A man unfolding a prayer rug is in a different time-space dimension than the one who is preparing for work. The man facing Mecca and reciting his prayers is linked to all the other times he has prayed and to all others who are praying.

Ritual/religious activities have their own metronome, and more than one metronome may be ticking simultaneously, creating different rhythms, in one space. When space is limited, people who cannot physically separate themselves enter into another measure of time as a way to maintain separations among categories.

The way people move within the space they occupy—their specific choreography—also orders the use of space. For example, upon entering a house, a Mouride shakes hands with everyone, sometimes with the distinctive Mouride handshake, bringing the other’s hand reverently to his forehead, while the other person makes the same gesture. (With a cheikh the gesture is not reciprocal—he only allows his hand to be raised to the taalibe’s forehead.)

This choreography becomes most evident on ritual occasions, when Mourides make a sharper distinction between states and beings considered sacred or polluting. For example, when a da’ira begins, separations between men and women become more important, and they separate to form two discrete groups. Women form their own group, perhaps in an adjoining room, while men come together to form a circle excluding women and non-Mourides. A cheikh’s place is in the middle of the men’s circle. The cheikh is physically set apart from the crowd in other ways, sometimes elevated above the others on a bed or in an armchair, while they sit on the floor (fig. 20).

Figure 20. A visiting cheikh in Paris gives his blessing to taalibes. Photograph by Victoria Ebin.
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The choreography, how people move within space, follows the same pattern as the da’ira. The men gather in a circle and begin to sing zikrs, or chants in Arabic, new arrivals advance, approach the group, shake hands, and join the circle. Eventually, their individual shapes merge into one. Shoulders touching, they sway from side to side in unison as they sing.

This new choreography—men coming together in a circle, singing the praises of Cheikh Amadu Bamba—marks a change in mood. People say that singing the qasa’ids brings them closer to Cheikh Amadu Bamba. These sessions are a release from the usual limitations of everyday life (Trimingham 1971: 200). Da’ira meetings are intense emotional experiences that create close bonds and link people into a collective identity (Martin 1976: 2). “Now that we have sung the zikrs and eaten together, we are like that,” one young street peddler said after a da’ira, holding up his fist, “tight and strong.” Using a newly learned English phrase, he said, “All for one and one for all.”

These traders live without a permanent space of their own and travel with few possessions. They do not have a mosque or a sacred place. They sanctify space by their own actions, by making the “inside outside.”

A New Choreography: Touba Comes to Town

The arrival of a cheikh from Senegal, the personification of Touba, marks a starting point in a new set of movements. This sacred individual introduces a more formal order into the community, like the jolt of an electric shock to regulate an erratic pulse.

The cheikh’s arrival activates notions of hierarchy, which seem somewhat less evident among migrants than in Senegal, where distinctions such as those based on occupational castes seem to carry greater weight. Far from their families, and without the backdrop of support they provide, the migrants seem more egalitarian. Mouride immigrant life breaks down some of the formality of Senegalese society.

The cheikh’s arrival means that more attention is paid to these distinctions. The observance of these separations creates a different use of space. Separations between men and women and separations based on notions of hierarchy suddenly become more important. Griots (professional praise singers) come forward to sing the praises of the cheikh. Women of the community cover their heads and cook.

Once a year, Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng, a son of Serigne Fallilou, the second khalifa-general of the Mourides, and therefore a major figure in the brotherhood, visits his followers in Europe and America. The cheikh and his entourage travel the Mouride circuit somewhat the way a traveling troupe takes to the road. Every year they follow the same itinerary around Europe—Paris, Lyons, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid—to visit their taalibes.

Like other important cheikhs, Serigne Modou travels with an entourage of family members, always the same during the three years I have seen them in Paris and New York—a younger brother who acts as translator, a young wife who is his preferred traveling companion, a daughter, and her husband, who is also a cheikh. At each stop, they set up house in a lavish hotel, where Mourides come to visit, and, despite their frequent moves, the use of space remains the same.

While in Paris, the cheikh stays in a large apartment in a luxury hotel near the Eiffel Tower. At least three of the hotel staff have become his taalibes during the years he has been staying at the hotel. At lunch time, a fleet of friendly French cleaning women stop by the cheikh’s kitchen for a Senegalese lunch.

The apartment has three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. Visitors leave their shoes at the entrance, where a large rug is set out and used for prayers. The cheikh’s brothers share the room closest to the apartment’s entrance, while the cheikh’s wife and daughter receive guests in the adjacent room. Women visitors, who move within a limited space in the apartment, generally wait in this room for the cheikh to receive them. Men, however, move from room to room, sometimes stopping to visit the women. But the only time women enter the men’s room is to distribute food.

The hallway leads into a large living room, where taalibes wait for the cheikh to make an appearance before his assembled visitors, who frequently number from fifty to eighty after work and on weekends. Most visitors, however, are waiting for a private audience with the cheikh, whose small room, entered through the living room, is in the innermost, most protected location in the apartment.

While the apartment’s design is purely European, the use of space is similar to that in a cheikh’s house in Touba. According to this plan, the cheikh’s or ruler’s house consists of an enclosure built around a series of concentric circles or squares, with the cheikh in the most interior, protected space.

In his Esquisses sénégalaises, Abbé Boilat describes how the plan of a mid-nineteenth-century house protected the Wolof king. “At the entrance is a large courtyard with armed soldiers at the door. One must pass through several such courtyards to arrive at the prince’s’s room; in each courtyard one traverses a house which serves as a sort of guard. The house of the sovereign is always at the end of the enclosure” (Boilat 1984 [1853]: 292).

The abbé’s description of his visit to the queen of Walo in northern Senegal in 1850 shows how royal protocol organized the use of space. “We were obliged to wait an hour in the first court; a half-hour in the second; another half-hour in the third; finally, at 4:00 we were received by the prince, the husband of the queen.…It was only at 6:00 that the queen was visible;…we entered a large courtyard where Her Majesty was seated, smoking her pipe of honor, surrounded by more than 500 women” (Boilat 1984: 293).

Visitors to Serigne Modou in his Paris hotel must pass through similar protocol, which is often equally lengthy. The outer door of the hotel suite in Paris, as well as the entrances to each room, are station points for guards. In the small foyer at the main door, the cheikh’s younger brother is always present, greeting taalibes, sometimes giving blessings, and also receiving offerings. The new arrivals, especially if they are close to the cheikh’s family, may visit the young cheikhs in their room while waiting to see Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng.

All visitors must pass by an individual known as the bëkk néeg, or “confidant of the king,” who controls access to the cheikh (Fal et al. 1990: 44). According to a Wolof proverb, a marabout needs more than one set of ears: the bëkk néeg is his second set. One bëkk néeg is stationed at the entrance to the living room and another is in front of the cheikh’s private room.

In both the Paris hotel and the nineteenth-century king’s house, the bëkk néeg choreographs the passage of visitors. He protects the space around the cheikh by guiding visitors to where they must wait and informs them when the cheikh is ready.

As in the nineteenth-century palace, the bëkk néeg choreographs the passage of visitors in the Paris hotel suite. He protects the inviolable space around the cheikh by directing the flow of people. In the past, the design of the king’s house, with its series of concentric courtyards and guards, maintained a distance between him and visitors. Today’s cheikh in a hotel suite is protected by a choreography that fulfills the same function.


The Mouride brotherhood is an example of a highly centralized body, organized around a hierarchy of saints, with the khalifa-general at its peak and Touba at its conceptual center. It is now also a highly mobile society (taalibes and cheikhs in a state of continuous motion) that places high value on solidarity and collective identity.

Itinerant Mourides reproduce aspects of this structure wherever they are. Touba multiplies and is recreated by a sort of spontaneous generation, which occurs when conditions are right—that is, when Mourides invoke its presence. These replications of Touba can be ephemeral, such as the ambience created at a da’ira or during the visit of a cheikh, or semipermanent, as they are in a hotel room where Mourides live. In creating their space, Mouride traders do not construct buildings or alter the arrangements of their space, but an invisible architecture structures their use of space just as clearly as walls and courtyards.

Three features seem essential to creating Mouride space. First, they bring Touba and everything it connotes—the mosque, Cheikh Amadu Bamba, the home of the saints—into their present space. The frequent visits of their cheikhs—when “Touba comes to town”—reinforce Touba’s presence. The invariable objects in their living places—posters, tapes of the qasa’ids, the highly spiced “Touba” coffee—refer to the sacred town like a series of mnemonic notes.

Mourides carry Touba in their hearts. At the da’ira meetings, their chants and songs make the “inside outside.” They claim that singing the poems of Amadu Bamba transforms the space where da’iras are held, creating sacred space and unity.

Second, the presence of other Mourides is essential. In creating space that is specifically their own, the group, or, as they say, “being numerous,” is crucial. Mourides claim that everything is better when it is shared—eating, praying, and singing. Singing the zikrs and the qasidas brings Mourides together, physically and spiritually, binding them into a collectivity, the very foundation of their invisible house.

Finally, Mouride choreography, observing separations between sacred and polluting categories, is necessary. Divisions between these categories are maintained through specific strategies in the use of space and time.

Mourides claim and appropriate space as their own by recreating Touba, observing their specific choreography and simply being in a space—a Mouride surrounded by other Mourides. Minimal is the only word to describe their living conditions, and the transformation of space into specifically Mouride territory depends on its occupation by Mourides.

Singing the zikrs, the foremost example of how Mourides transform space, can be done anywhere, in a train station, a hotel lobby, an airport. By this activity, they mark space and make it theirs. They do not need to possess space to make it their own. The paradox is that despite their patent lack of it, they constantly create space through their presence.


1. This study focuses on Mouride men, because at the time of my fieldwork in New York and Marseilles in 1986–88, few women were involved in trade. Recently, however, the number of Mouride women traders has grown. [BACK]

2. In 1895, Amadu Bamba had 500 followers; in 1912, a French official estimated their number at 68,350; by 1952, the figure had risen to 300,000, and by 1959 to 400,000 (Monteil 1966: 370). [BACK]

3. Cruise O’Brien 1988: 137. For a discussion of the divisions among Mourides in Paris, see Diop 1985. For a comparison with Mourides in New York, see Ebin 1990. [BACK]

4. Xam-xam is defined as knowledge, understanding, science (Fal et al. 1990: 250). [BACK]

5. The importance of Touba for Mourides is highlighted by comparison with the behavior of migrants from northern Senegal in Paris, who form associations to carry out collective projects in their home villages; they build dispensaries and make village gardens. Mourides, on the other hand, make their collective donations to Touba. [BACK]

6. Cruise O’Brien 1971: 47, 41–137. While other roots for “Touba” are possible, such as tauba (repentance) or tuba (a tree in Paradise), Mouride informants invariably define it as “sweetest” (Cruise O’Brien 1971: 47). [BACK]

Works Cited

Behrman, Lucy. 1985. “Muslim Brotherhoods and Politics in Senegal in 1985.” Journal of Modern African Studies 4: 715–21. UC-eLinks

Boilat, Abbé David. 1984 [1853]. Esquisses sénégalaises. Paris: Karthala. UC-eLinks

Cohen, A. 1971. “Cultural Strategies in the Organization of Trading Diasporas.” In The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa: Studies Presented and Discussed at the Tenth International African Seminar at Fourah Bay College, Freetown, December 1969, ed. Claude Meillassoux. London: International Africa Institute. UC-eLinks

Cruise O’Brien, Donal B. 1971. The Mourides of Senegal: The Political and Economic Organization of an Islamic Brotherhood. Oxford: Clarendon Press. UC-eLinks

——————. 1989. “Charisma Comes to Town: Mouride Urbanization, 1945–1989.” In Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam, ed. Donal Cruise O’Brien and Christian Coulon, pp. 135–55. Oxford: Clarendon Press. UC-eLinks

Diop, A. M. 1985. “Les Associations murid en France.” Esprit 6: 197–206. UC-eLinks

Ebin, Victoria. 1990. “Commerçants et missionaires: Une Confrérie musulmane sénégalaise a New York.” Hommes et migrations 1132: 25–31. UC-eLinks

——————. 1992. “A la recherche de nouveaux ‘poissons’: Strategies commerciales mourides par temps de crise.” Politique africaine 45: 86–98. UC-eLinks

Fal, Arame, Rosine Santos, and Jean Leonce Doneux. 1990. Dictionnaire Wolof-Français. Paris: Karthala. UC-eLinks

Fatton, Robert. 1987. The Making of a Liberal Democracy: Senegal’s Passive Revolution, 1975–1985. Boulder, Colo.: Lynn Rienner. UC-eLinks

Martin, Bradley. 1976. Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. UC-eLinks

Monteil, Vincent. 1966. Esquisses sénégalaises. Initiation et études africaines, 11. Dakar: IFAN. UC-eLinks

Nguyen Van-Chi-Bonnardel, Regine. 1978. La Vie de relations au Sénégal: La Circulation des biens. Dakar: IFAN. UC-eLinks

Renaudeau, Michel, and Michelle Strobel. 1984. Peinture sous verre du Sénégal. Paris: Nathan; Dakar: Nouvelles editions africaines. UC-eLinks

Samb, Papa Boubacar. 1992. “Du grand bazar à Taksim: Un petit coin du Sénégal.” Le Soleil (Dakar), August 22–23. UC-eLinks

Trimingham, J. Spencer. 1971. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford: Clarendon Press. UC-eLinks

6. New Medinas

The Tablighi Jama‘at in America and Europe

Barbara D. Metcalf

The Tablighi Jama‘at

The Tablighi Jama‘at is a quietist movement of spiritual renewal that originated some seventy years ago in British India. The movement has spread widely in areas of Indo-Pakistani migration, among Muslims of North African origin in Belgium (Dassetto 1988) and France (Kepel 1987), and thence to North Africa (Tozy and Etienne 1986), as well as to many countries of Africa and to Malaysia.[1] A succinct summary by a British Muslim reviewing “Islam in Britain” might serve as an introduction to the movement, as well as an illustration of how Tablighis are often viewed:

The founder of the Tablighi Jamaat in India was Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (1885–1944). A student of Deoband [a reformist theological institute founded in 1867], he became disillusioned with [conventional education] and wanted to project Islam in an extroverted manner. His main thrust was to do missionary work.…The Tablighis…travel in groups on gasht (tour) to bring other Muslims round to their way of thinking. They have been quite successful in this but [N.B.] like the Deobandis they are non-political.

The center of the Tablighi Jamaat in Britain is Dewsbury [in West Yorkshire]. They are spread all over Britain through the mosques and are well organized. They are polite, courteous and well behaved, and can easily be spotted in the streets. They wear a cap, a beard, a long shirt which goes below the knees, and a pyjama or trousers which is shortened to be above the ankles. They might also wear a jacket and sneakers. They keep very much to themselves. (Raza 1991: 14–15)

The rationale behind the program described by Raza, as conceived by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, was imitation of the practice of the early community of the Prophet, not only by following his sunna in general terms, but specifically by conducting “campaigns” to spread Islam. For Ilyas, the critical qur’anic teaching was that Muslims were “the best community” only insofar as they “enjoined the good and forbade evil” (Qur’an, sura Al Imran, 3:110). Although military forays were impossible, active preaching was equally a “struggle in the way of God,” a jihad. Muslims were to go out on patrols (gasht) and excursions or forays (khuruj); and they were to be led by an amir, a ruler or chief, who need not necessarily be a teacher or spiritual guide. Every time they left home “in the way of God,” they undertook a hijra, recalling the move to Medina.[2] The most distinctive dimension of Muhammad Ilyas’s teaching was that the duty to preach was incumbent on all Muslims, not only on the learned or spiritual elite. Outsiders labeled them the “community” (jama‘at) of “informing” or “notifying” (tabligh), in reference to this earnest preaching.

Since there are no formal criteria for membership, it is impossible to measure the spread or depth of Tabligh activity with any precision. Even participation in missions is a limited measure of the movement’s influence: thus a recent doctoral dissertation on a Muslim community in Bombay attributes a radical change in religious style over recent decades to Tabligh preaching despite the fact that very few participate in the weekly gatherings, let alone the missionary tours (Fazalbhoy 1990). Tabligh includes many levels of participation, from those who have virtually no other activity, to people engaged in household or paid employment who yet manage to meet the movement’s standards for participation in gatherings and travel, to those who join an occasional mission, to those who may occasionally or regularly pray where Tablighis congregate and listen to their discussions. The annual gatherings, drawing participants worldwide, are one measure of the movement’s growth. In the subcontinent, the numbers attending the meetings in Raiwind (Pakistan) each November and Tungi (Bangladesh) each January are widely estimated to be over one million; similar numbers participated in meetings in India, but because of fears of anti-Muslim violence, such mass meetings have in recent years been suspended there in favor of smaller gatherings.[3]

Tabligh Abroad

The beginnings of Tabligh activity overseas are precisely remembered by activists today. Thus the first tour in Britain is dated to 1946; in the United States, to 1952; in France, to 1962. The change came under the leadership of Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (1917–65) as the movement’s amir, a role he succeeded to upon the death of his father, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, in 1944. From the very beginning, he encouraged a worldwide vision of the spread of the Tabligh message; that spirit continues, so that even if the traces are slight, it is important to activists that their brethren have traveled everywhere, whether to China or Alaska. It was, however, with the substantial labor, student, and professional migrations to Europe and North America, beginning in the 1960s, that a network of support and a core audience for preaching appeared and substantial Tabligh activity began.

There have, however, been other networks utilized by Tabligh missions (Gaborieau 1993: 17). A key occasion for Tabligh activity has been hajj travel, when the pious use the unavoidable companionship of travel to persuade their fellows; once in the Hijaz, they turn their attention to Arabs and others they encounter. Hence diaspora Muslims might hear the Tabligh message while on hajj or might themselves undertake the pilgrimage as part of a Tabligh mission.

A second network has been that established by students and scholars of Islam, especially those associated with the academy known as the Nadwatu’l-‘Ulama, located in Lucknow in north India, which has a strong tradition of Arabic scholarship and links to the Arabic-speaking world. Maulana Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi (1914–), a distinguished scholar and international Islamic figure, who identified himself for a time with the Tabligh program, has been particularly influential among the Nadwa ‘ulama.[4] Again, this influence has reached beyond the Arab world itself in a variety of ways—for example, in the interest ‘Ali Miyan, as Maulana Nadwi is known, took in Muslims in Europe.[5] A third important network has been that established by trading communities, particularly Gujaratis, whose effectiveness in the diaspora may be linked to their previous experience in culturally and religiously plural societies (van der Veer 1994), an experience less true of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Gujaratis dominate the European center at Dewsbury (Lewis 1994: 90–94) and are prominent among active participants elsewhere. Tabligh activity has also been stimulated among North African immigrants in Belgium and France who have responded to missions from the Indian subcontinent.

Certain key figures and moments stand out in the history of early Tabligh expansion to the West. One almost legendary figure was ‘Abdu’r-Rashid Arshad, a telecommunications engineer from Peshawar (in Pakistan) whose influence spread participation in Tabligh throughout the federal government’s Post and Telegraph Department. Arshad not only traveled in the Indian subcontinent but also joined an early mission to England; then, thanks to overseas appointments, he was able to carry his missionary work to Japan, to the United States, and, finally, to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 1963 in an accident (Gaborieau 1992: 9).

Cherished events in the early years of Tabligh activity in Europe include the participation in a mission in London in 1946 of Dr. Zakir Husain, scholar and president of the Republic of India (1967–69), who had come to Britain for a scholarly conference. According to Maulana Muhammad Yusuf’s biographer, “because of Dr. Zakir’s high rank and his worldwide reputation, people paid attention to him” (Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: 257–58). Also significant were the visits to Britain in 1979 and 1981 of Maulana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalawi (1898–1982), the author of the movement’s guiding books and pamphlets (Metcalf 1993a), at the invitation of his disciples engaged in founding the seminary at Dewsbury (Gaborieau 1992: 20).

Tablighis were not the first organized Muslim missionaries from the Indian subcontinent to spread to America and Europe, however. That role was played by the Ahmadis, a controversial modernizing movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century around the figure of a charismatic teacher, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (183?–1908). The first mosque in Britain, established at Woking in 1889, was associated with Ahmadi activities for some years (Lewis 1994: 12). Ahmadis continue to be active throughout the world today, at a time when they are severely curtailed in some core Muslim areas because of the Pakistani-generated move in 1974 to label them “non-Muslims” (cf. Haider, this volume). In the United States, many African-American Muslims, who may no longer be affiliated with the Ahmadis, first heard about Islam from Ahmadi missionaries (Beverly McCloud, personal communication). Ahmadis use the same vocabulary for their work as do Tablighis, not least the non-qur’anic term tabligh, as did a number of ephemeral movements of the 1920s, however different the content of their teachings.[6]

Although the goal of the Tabligh movement has been to permeate mainstream Muslim life, using all mosques as bases, particular institutions have in fact come to be associated specifically with Tabligh activity. In Britain, the Dewsbury seminary, established in the early 1980s, now has some 300 students, of whom 15 percent are from overseas: the mosque of the seminary dominates the neighborhood of modest row houses, many inhabited by immigrants, in the town (fig. 21). The students follow a six-year course, spending one year at the original center of Tabligh work, the Banglewali Masjid in the Nizamuddin section of New Delhi; a new five-story building adjoining the original mosque was built primarily to house members of overseas missions.[7] The central Tabligh mosque in London, the Markazi Masjid, is housed in a former synagogue, whose interior is wholly utilitarian. In Belgium, a Tabligh association and mosque were formally established in 1975 under the leadership of a Moroccan who had gone to Bangladesh on a mission; a dozen other Tablighi mosques were built during the 1980s (Dassetto 1988: 164). In Paris, the Mosquée Omar, shown in figure 22, is a bustling center of Tabligh activity (Kepel 1987: 192–201). In Canada, the Al Rashid Islamic Institute, set up in 1987, now educates fifty boys and has a Toronto mosque of its own as base (Azmi 1989). In the United States, a recent survey showed some twenty-five mosques under the control of “a group of ‘evangelical’ missionary Muslims called Jamaati Tableegh” (Haddad and Lummis 1987: 21).

Figure 21. Street in a Muslim area of Dewsbury, Yorkshire, with the Tabligh mosque and seminary in the distance. Photograph by Barbara D. Metcalf.
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Figure 22. The Mosquée Omar, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris. Photograph by Isabelle Rouadjia.
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Lack of involvement in politics does not mean that Tablighis wholly eschew utilization of facilities offered by the state. They do indeed turn to government at every level, of necessity, to negotiate permits for buildings and meetings, visas for travel, and so forth. In Belgium, Tablighis chose to organize as a voluntary association and have, apparently, wanted to make themselves visible through a council of mosques, claiming a “nonfundamentalist” voice in relation to the state (Dassetto 1988: 165–66). In Britain, Tablighis have utilized the opportunities offered to religious schools to gain local education authority support for instruction in the Dewsbury seminary (Lewis 1994: 91). The Tabligh in the West, given the exigencies and opportunities presented by state recognition, seems to have adopted a higher institutional profile than that common in India or Pakistan.

The first general annual meeting, or ijtima‘, of the Tablighi Jama‘at in North America was held in Detroit in 1980, and similar meetings have followed—for example, one in Chicago in 1988, with attendance estimated at 6,000, which would make it the largest gathering of Muslims ever held in North America (Ahmed 1991b).

A major ijtima‘ was held in Belgium, at Charleroi, in 1982 (Dassetto 1988: 164). The Dewsbury meeting, held each June, now attracts several thousand participants, who are lodged in the main mosque and private homes. In addition to participants from Europe and North America, mission groups come to Dewsbury from countries such as South Africa, as well as from old Muslim areas. Although the proceedings are in Urdu, translation is provided into English, French, and Arabic in various corners of the meetings rooms.[8] When I visited the Dewsbury ijtima‘ in 1991, I met or heard about British-born Muslims of Indo-Pakistani origin; South and East Africans, mostly of Gujarati background; Indians and Pakistanis; Canadians; British converts; and Americans. I met an African-American U.S. Army sergeant based in Germany who had converted to Islam and to Tabligh activity through the influence of another American Tablighi in Munich: he had adopted the name of one of the humble Mewati peasants won over by Maulana Ilyas in the very earliest days of Tabligh, Muhammad Musa. He was accompanied by his wife, a former Jehovah’s Witness from Philadelphia. I also met a large jama‘at of South African men and women on a chilla, a forty-day tour that included the hajj, this ijtima‘ in Dewsbury, and an ijtima‘ in Los Angeles. Tabligh networks link diverse populations and far-flung geographic areas.

Most descriptions of Tabligh, like Muhammad Raza’s above, implicitly define the movement as one of men—for example, by describing missionary tours, residence in mosques, and characteristic dress. In Dewsbury, I joined a gathering of women assembled in the home of a family of active participants located near the mosque where the men were gathered. Bedroom walls had been removed to turn the upper story into a single open space; mats spread on the floor allowed large numbers to gather for sitting, sleeping, and participating in discussions and talks. Women in the diaspora and elsewhere meet regularly—in Dewsbury every afternoon—for the kind of study and prayer shared by men. Women are responsible for guiding their families and other women, and, when I asked the assembled group if they had come to know Tabligh through the men in their families, they were indignant at my failure to recognize how often it was women—dating back to the Prophet’s day—who had offered correct guidance to men.[9] Women travel only when accompanied by men and typically stay in homes, while men stay in mosques.

Tabligh involves fundamental reconfigurations of gender boundaries as part of its overall deemphasizing of hierarchy, evident above all in the insistence that every Muslim, poor or rich, learned or not, can participate (Metcalf 1993b). At Dewsbury in 1990, for example, one session was given over to the importance of women’s participation. The preacher enjoined men to share child care in order to make this possible, citing a hadith that women were permitted to refuse even to nurse their children. If women could refuse to nurse, he argued, men were not in a position to require them to do anything. Women, therefore, could prefer to do Tabligh rather than care for children. A further mark of changes in social roles is the fact that many marriage contacts were concluded at the ijtima‘, presumably blessed for being undertaken on such an occasion (Syed Zainuddin, personal communication). To the extent that this meant eliminating the elaborate gifts, visits, and transactions customarily entailed in celebrating weddings, it also meant a new basis for social relations and a diminution of traditional roles defined by gender and hierarchy.

Tablighis insist on the priority of face-to-face encounters, and relationships, for communicating their message. Even in the West, they eschew the powerful new media, including cassettes and videos, that have been so effective in so many other movements. They do utilize print, however, although they emphasize a narrow range of books and use them, typically, in oral settings. A book publisher and distributor, the Idara Ishaat-E-Diniyat (Institute for Disseminating Works on Religion), adjoining the Banglewali Masjid, has been particularly important in publishing, translating, and disseminating Tabligh-related materials. Visitors to its shop typically find the aisles crowded with crates destined for countries around the world. It translates extensively into English and, to a lesser degree, into Arabic and French (Metcalf 1993a).

In accounting for the effectiveness of Tabligh, the constitution of a new basis for social relationships, perhaps particularly felt in situations of social dislocation like immigration, is clearly significant. Ideally, Tabligh groups operate on principles unlike those of the everyday world, stressing mutuality, a nonjudgmental quality, and intense, yet typically transitory, relationships, as jama‘ats group and regroup in ways that reconfigure customary patterns of hierarchy and gender. Also important to Tabligh success both in old Muslim areas and in the diaspora is the relentless apoliticism of the Tabligh: it is thus inconspicuous and regarded as at least harmless and at most, by some regimes, as beneficial and stabilizing.[10] Keeping aloof from politics has become all the more important with increased international travel and the need to secure visas to countries often suspicious of anyone who even looks like a Muslim.[11] Also powerful is the Tabligh resistance to “Western” culture in favor of presumed authentic Islamic values and imperatives, a resistance that fosters the conviction that ultimately it does not matter where one is.

Three Conversations

Many of these themes are evident in the three fragments of conversations that follow, not least the spatial mobility of many engaged in Tabligh and the spatial conceptions that inform this movement. In the following three anecdotes, for example, the British Bengali funeral director was on the verge of leaving for the annual Tabligh meeting in Tungi, Bangladesh. The Pakistani scientist, while now based in Pakistan, has spent considerable time abroad and is immersed in international networks. The Canadian-born Muslim student had studied for two years in Medina and told me this story in Britain. Although brief, the fragments signal something of the coherence and autonomy of Tabligh conceptions. The first two conversations suggest how readily non-Tablighis (in this case, myself) fail to see this distinctiveness.

Conversation 1

December, 1991. We enter the modest, bustling office of an elderly energetic British Bengali, resident in Britain since he was shipwrecked as a sailor in World War II. Shortly after his arrival, having encountered Tabligh missionaries from the subcontinent seeking a place to pray, he himself became active in Tabligh. I am accompanied by a colleague, a Bangladeshi historian. Our host has dedicated his career to two essentials of Muslim life in the diaspora: halal provisions and Muslim burial arrangements. He described his many tours undertaken for Tabligh, and, being a Californian, I spoke up when he mentioned my home state to ask about the ethnic composition of the tour that went there. (The humor of his answer rests in part on the pride Bengalis typically have in their beautiful, cultured homeland.)


Were you all Bengalis who went on the tour to California?


Why do you ask that? Allah said, “I created men and jinn that they might worship me.” He did not say I created Bengalis and Californians! It’s not my fault I’m a Bengali.

Conversation 2

July 1991. A comfortable sitting room in a house in a quiet urban residential area. I have come to meet a fortyish scientist who has participated in Tabligh, and whose family, including some in the United States and in Britain, have been active in the movement. He reminds me that we met at a dinner party in Berkeley some ten years back. I am accompanied by a longtime woman friend who is a cousin of this person’s wife (who is also a professional). Although all four of us are present, the conversation is largely between myself and the scientist. It is intense and focused on my proposal to write about Tabligh. He challenges my topic on two grounds: first, the implications of writing about a movement whose members do not seek publicity and do not want to be documented, and, second (the point in the exchange below), that as an outsider in a movement that is predicated on experiential, not intellectual, understanding, I cannot be accurate in my presentation.


Why are you interested in Tabligh?


Well, for starts, the Tablighi Jama‘at is very unusual. It is a transnational institution but communicates something very different from the consumer culture, Westernization, whatever we usually associate with “transnational institutions.” I’m interested in countering monolithic views of “Islamic fundamentalism.” I’m intrigued by the organization of Tabligh, which is so intrinsic to its goals.


Then why not study some international social science organization? You are missing the point completely in your analysis. The only appropriate analysis of Tablighi Jama‘at puts God at the center and sees that all else rests on His grace.

Conversation 3

The Medina Mosque, a Tablighi mosque, in Toronto. A Muslim graduate student chatting to a young Canadian Tablighi:


How do you feel as a Muslim about living in Canada?


Where I am, there it is daru’l-islam.

The three conversations above suggest critical parameters of what could be called a Tabligh apprehension of human society, the Divine presence, and history. The first conversation insists that national and ethnic identities do not matter. The second refuses, inter alia, to conclude as a result that we are dealing with “transnationalism.” How can transnationalism be the point if nationalism is irrelevant? What is at stake are issues of a different order completely: the experiential realization of Divine grace. And in the third, what we generally take to be some vision of an Islamically organized society, “the abode of Islam,” turns out to be available to any individual who—in any place, in any time—relives the prophetic example of Medina.

Beyond History and the Nation-State

The issues of history and the nation are closely conjoined. If we think of modern history and its implicit assumptions, nothing has been more significant to its shaping than the nation-state. Just look at any college catalogue of courses to see the way historical study is organized in terms of nation-states, typically using that geographical framework for periods long before the nation-state existed. We smile at a book title like Five Thousand Years of Pakistan, but what seems implausible on the face of it is only an extreme example of the project of historical writing to shape national identities.

In the 1920s, at a time when politically oriented Muslims in British India were shaping stories about themselves, typically ones that focused on periods of past greatness, current decline, and a vision of progress and greatness once India was free, Maulana Ilyas and those associated with him chose to focus on a different kind of history, one that gave no room to national boundaries (of any kind) or to nationalism. A widespread debate of the period was over which term should be used for Indian Muslims, the chief contenders being qaum, with its emphasis on ethnic ties, and millat, a term associated with juridical arrangements established by the state. Ilyas’s only term for Muslims was the ideal, apolitical umma, which includes all Muslims everywhere. It is striking that in letters to Maulana Muhammad Yusuf dating from the early years of work in the diaspora, the writers speak of their homeland—for example, in trying to encourage residents in America and Europe to travel there to participate in missions—as “hind-o-pak,” India-Pakistan, as if the area were (still) one country (Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: ch. 11). Tabligh history is history without the nation-state and with no concern for worldly progress. It is what has been called “typological” history of nonlinear time created by patterns of moral significance.[12] The issue for Tablighis is not to trace linear change and causality but to identify moments when individuals have followed the pristine example of the Prophet; the goal, then, is to relive his time. All such moments are the same in essence, and contingencies of time and place are irrelevant. The importance of transcending particular space in favor of the umma is the theme of a talk given by Maulana Muhammad Yusuf shortly before his death in 1965: “Remember! The words, ‘my nation, my region, and my people’ all lead to disunity, and God disapproves of this more than anything else” (quoted in Wahiduddin Khan 1986: 47).

Historians of the Indian subcontinent have in recent years become deeply interested in the themes that have shaped the historical and social thought of subordinate groups who did not themselves write history (Guha and Spivak 1988; Chatterjee 1986; Chakrabarty 1992). In this quest for “subaltern histories” that do not fit the dominant narratives, whether colonial, Marxist, or nationalist, historians have sometimes seemed to search for an untouched or authentic cultural expression. In many cases, however, it is clear that the subaltern voice is in fact responding to and shaped by colonial or nationalist cultural norms.[13] In the case of Tabligh, the underlying assumptions do in fact seem to be fundamentally independent of British or nationalist concerns. At the same time, one must see the extent to which the context of British rule stimulated the movement and the fact that certain assumptions—not least the starting point of Muslim decline, decadence, failure—were shared in common.

Contemporary observers, however, write Tabligh into the dominant narratives. In Muhammad Raza’s account above, intended as a value-free catalogue of movements and sects, the word but suggests the common criticism that Tablighis do not participate in politics as they should, whether for the sake of the state or the sake of Islam. A recent, insightful scholarly account of Tabligh makes the same judgment: that Tabligh isolates from politics significant segments of the population that might otherwise be drawn to Islamically oriented positions (Ahmed 1991b). Other critics have insisted that whatever Tablighis may think they are doing, they have contributed to ethnic separatism that can be destructive of social goals. The significance of Tabligh is thus weighed in relation to the state, a perspective of no relevance to Tablighis’ own view of their activities.

Manzil-i Leila: Reaching Heaven

Tabligh preaching stresses over and over again how transitory this world is in contrast to the world to come. Thus, in a sermon recorded at the Mosquée Omar in Paris, the preacher sought to turn his listeners away from the ambitions and comforts of this world—perhaps all too scarce for many of them in any case—in favor of remembering judgment and the blessings they could win then:

There are people who come and say to me, “Brother, they don’t let me pray at work!” They don’t let you do it, pray, at work? So? Is work God as far as you’re concerned? So who provides for you? Well? When you are here, with us, you say, “God,” but to your boss [using the French word chef] you say, “Boss! I’ll drop praying so you don’t get angry!” Well, just wait for the anger of the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.

And continuing, not about the French boss, but about other Muslims who denounce those who pray, learn the Qur’an, go on missions (al khuruj fi sabil illah, expeditions in the path of Allah), call others to faithfulness, and spend their nights in remembering God (dhikr) as “dervishes,” he says: “Soon, they will learn, they will see the ‘dervish’ who will be the first to enter Paradise!” And, he adds, the man successful in this life in worldly affairs, will be the first to enter hell (Kepel 1987: 197–98).

But what is most striking about this emphasis on Paradise is the conviction permeating Tabligh discourse that Paradise is not only in the future but now. Maulana Ilyas, the movement’s founder, made that promise: “[The servant of God] will find, in this world, the pleasures of Paradise” (Troll 1985: 171). And Tablighis today insist on the same. Thus an academic, currently based in Delhi, who shifted from being a “cultural Muslim” to a faithful Tablighi while doing a Ph.D. in English literature at a British university some ten years back, used exactly that language in describing to me the intensity of the pull to missions—that to go out on them was an analogue of Paradise.

The letters printed in Maulana Yusuf’s biography are permeated with the Sufi discourse that turns on the passion of the soul for the Beloved, who is ultimately God. Certain classic stories are allegories of that relationship—for example, that of the Leila referred to in the subheading above, the dark Arab beauty in pursuit of whom Majnun, his very name describing his maddened state, wanders the Arabian desert. In spatial terms, the Sufi quest is a journey, and the goal is a series of manzil, or stages. Muhammad Sani Hasani’s chapter on the spread of Tabligh to Europe, America, and Japan is introduced with the poetic couplet “O believer, let us show you / A display of the Divine, inside the house of idols” (Muhammad Sani Hasani: 516). Places like America and Europe are houses of idols (butkhane), but, just as the young Canadian Tablighi mentioned above insisted, daru’l-islam can be anywhere. Indeed, the greatest and most abiding pleasure, the divine encounter or manzil-i leila, may be found in the very context of infidelity, even if one is lured there by the deceptive (majazi) beauty of material gain.

The presence of the Divine for those engaged in Tabligh in the diaspora is not expressed abstractly but in terms of extraordinary interventions and experiences. A key teaching of Maulana Ilyas was that the work of guidance was the responsibility, not of learned scholars and Sufi shaikhs alone, but of every Muslim. This radical transformation of the role of religious leaders is at the heart of Tabligh organization (Metcalf 1993b). Moreover, ordinary people now not only fulfill the duties of guiding others but also receive the blessings, including those of “openings” (kashf) that, as Tablighis have explained to me, come almost immediately to those who go out on missions, in contrast to those who simply follow a Sufi path and must endure years of effort.

Hagiographies of pious ‘ulama are filled with stories of the miracles (karamat) God works through them (see, e.g., Metcalf 1982: 176–79). Stories of Tablighis, by contrast, are filled with accounts of miracles worked through everyone. A classic pattern in such stories is that of the English literature professor noted above: people were appalled when he set out on a four-month mission, leaving his ill father behind with inadequate resources; when he returned, the father was cured. Muhammad Sani Hasani begins his account with a story he identifies as a key to the character of Tablighis:

A small jama‘at of four people set out for the United States. On ship, they went to ask permission from the captain to give the call to prayer and to pray. He demurred, saying that people would be bothered by the noise. Nonetheless, they did give the azan and pray, and people came and watched them, inviting those on the ship who were Muslims to join them. The captain was very impressed by their ethical teaching. When the ship docked, he said that it was only because of them that God had spared the ship a storm since this was the very first time he had ever sailed that route in quiet weather. (paraphrased from Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: 518)

In a classic Sufi account, it would have been a saint’s charisma that controlled the elements.

Similarly resonant of the stories of the saints is an account of a terrible car accident that occurred during travel to an ijtima‘ in Detroit. On that occasion, even with others grievously wounded around him, one faithful Tablighi astonished the ambulance attendants by registering completely normal blood pressure. This was a mark, I was told, of the complete peace, sukun, known to participants who put their trust in God. The trope of an outsider dumbstruck at a saint’s marvelous achievement is common in the stories of the saints, and here appears in the story of an ordinary Tablighi.

Tablighis cite moments of divine intervention that change the course of everyday life. At the time of the Gulf War in 1991, for example, the African-American U.S. Army sergeant mentioned above was posted in Kuwait. He was deeply troubled about engaging in a war against the Iraqis, his fellow Muslims. He turned to a Muslim elder, also in the army, who advised him to follow his military duty but to pray for help. He “prayed hard.” On the verge of crossing the border into Iraq, his tank broke down and remained inoperable for the duration of the fighting. He saw no action in the war.

Travel and migration set a context for such happenings. The accounts of early Tabligh missions in Europe and America reveal an extraordinary opportunity to travel in complete dependence on God, which is always their goal. The missions arrive with no place to go, perhaps only scant knowledge of the language. A characteristic approach has been to proceed to a phone book and seek out Muslim names to set up appointments. As recounted in these letters, both the Tablighis and those they find experience the satisfactions and peace vouchsafed to the spiritually advanced: sukun,rahat,luzzat,zauq.

Writing of an ijtima‘ held in Manchester in 1962, one participant recalled that in twenty years of activity, he had never encountered such faith and fear of God as in that week. He described the sight of Manchester filled with Tablighis as a veritable Bhopal (site of many large Tabligh ijtima‘ in India) (Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: 525). This same participant was transfixed with admiration for converts; for example, in describing an ijtima‘ in London where there was an American jama‘at en route to Pakistan, including two converts, he said, “Our faith is not one-tenth of theirs” (ibid.: 524). Similarly, a Pakistani, assigned to translate for an Australian convert who had come on a mission to Pakistan, rejoiced in how much he had learned from the convert’s faith, as exemplified in a comment he had made. When asked why he had come, the Australian answered, “My home is on fire,” an answer the Pakistani still pondered years later. Tablighis in the diaspora and Tablighis in the homelands mutually sustain one another.


The worldwide spread of Tabligh has transformed the movement in significant ways. It has reinforced a change in the context of preaching to emphasize Tabligh as a counter to all that is summed up by “the West”—materialism, neglect of family, sexual promiscuity—instead of simply Tabligh as a challenge to Muslims’ own forgetfulness. For those resident in Europe and North America, Tabligh insists that, whatever their original motives in coming may have been, they can choose to live out a different story than that of material advancement, assimilation, and identification with a new nation-state. In Tabligh thinking, the very fact that they have traveled is rendered positive. Tabligh assuages the ambiguities associated with materialist motivations, residence in a place associated with a secularism and consumerism they deplore, even the fact that instead of achieving worldly success, they may find themselves unemployed.

What turns out to be at stake is not space, the new place where they have chosen to live, but time, in which the past and future converge in the present (cf. Schubel, this volume). In Tabligh, participants seek to relive the highest moment of human history, the Prophet’s society in Medina, and in so doing to taste the joys of the eternal happiness promised to them in Paradise ahead. Far from being on the periphery, they can make any place a center. Whatever the spiritual links to Nizamuddin may be, it is in the end ideally only the local jama‘at, and ultimately the individual alone, that matters. Long ago Maulana Ilyas told Tablighis that each jama‘at was to be a “traveling hospice or academy.” Instead of travel or pilgrimage to a center, the center is where one is.

Tabligh can be seen as one response, that of drawing boundaries and reasserting absolute truth, in the context of the pluralism engendered by our increasingly integrated global society and ever more intrusive modern states. Tablighis reject the kind of ecumenicism that invites non-Muslims to grace their proceedings: not for them the Lord Mayor at their assemblies (cf. Werbner, this volume). Ideally, non-Muslims are not constituted as an “other” but, ultimately, rendered invisible, although, a Tablighi would insist, treated with respect. The end result, of focusing on one’s own and one’s community’s religious life and avoiding religion in public life, converges with a secular approach to politics and religion.

If Tabligh thus seems able to deal with the problem of cultural and religious pluralism, it also offers an implicit response to the racism and disdain that pluralism often entails. The power of that racism to shape an individual’s self-image is shown at its most extreme, in Salman Rushdie’s Saladin Chamcha, who wants to be an Englishman, but turns into a goat: “They describe us.…and we succumb to the pictures they construct” (Rushdie 1989: 168). Tabligh ideology gives participants in the diaspora a powerful script unlike those the dominant society offers—they are reliving Medina and they are concretely blessed. In embracing that picture, the space they inhabit becomes their own.


1. See the forthcoming volume under the editorship of Muhammad Khalid Masud on Tabligh activities throughout the world, in particular, the articles by Marc Gaborieau, on the international spread of Tabligh; S. H. Azmi, on Tabligh in Canada; and Philip Lewis, on Britain. The volume is based on a workshop on the Tablighi Jama‘at organized by the Joint Committee on the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies of the Social Science Research Council / American Council of Learned Societies and convened by James Piscatori at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, June 1990. [BACK]

2. For general background to the Tablighi Jama‘at in the Indian subcontinent, see Haq 1972, Lokhandwala 1971, Metcalf 1982, Nadwi 1948, Troll 1985, and Wahiduddin Khan 1986. [BACK]

3. For an attempt to use scientific precision in estimating participation at the Raiwind meeting, see Qurashi 1986. [BACK]

4. In this regard the forthcoming work of two doctoral students is particularly important. Mariam Ghalmi is currently preparing a dissertation at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales on the subject of the relationship of the Nadwatu’l-‘Ulama to the Tabligh. Ahmed Mukarram, at Oxford University, is studying Maulana Abu’l- Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi himself. [BACK]

5. See among Maulana Nadwi’s writings Na’i dunya men saf saf baten (Speaking Plainly to the West) (Lucknow: Majlis-i-Tahqiqat wa Nashriyyat-i-Islam, 1978) and Muslims in the West: The Message and Mission (Leicester, Eng.: Islamic Foundation, 1983). [BACK]

6. For references to other “tabligh” movements, see Siddiqi 1986. On the Ahmadiyya, see Friedmann 1989. Both Khalid Masud and Marc Gaborieau have pointed out that no one has studied the possibility of Ahmadi influence on other transnational movements. [BACK]

7. I am grateful to Philip Lewis for arranging my visit to Bradford and accompanying me to Dewsbury in June 1991. [BACK]

8. I am grateful to Syed Zainuddin (Aligarh University, India) and Muhammad Talib (Jamia Millia, New Delhi, India) for their firsthand descriptions of the ijtima‘ they attended in 1990. [BACK]

9. At issue in a more extensive study of women participants would be the question of whether women’s themes and interpretations differ systematically from those of men. For a study of the differing ideologies of women and men in a (far different kind of) religious movement, see Bacchetta, forthcoming. [BACK]

10. In the 1960s, for example, President Mohammed Ayub Khan is reported to have directed his officials to cooperate with Tabligh activities, regarding them, unlike those of the politically oriented Islamic movements, as desirable. [BACK]

11. The inability of Westerners to distinguish among Islamic groups is exemplified by the case of Lieutenant General Javed Naser, an active participant in Tabligh, who was appointed head of Inter Services Intelligence in Pakistan in March 1992, but was removed some months later as part of Pakistani efforts to ensure that the United States, apparently on the verge of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, did not panic at the sight of his beard (Newsline, March–April 1992, p. 97). With thanks to Syed Vali Nasr for this and other clippings. [BACK]

12. For a study of typological or mythical thinking within the Christian tradition, see Frye 1982. [BACK]

13. It would, for example, seem plausible to argue that in the late-nineteenth-century chronicle Pandey discusses (1990), the zamindar was in fact very much a product of the colonial culture. We know that he was involved in conversations taking place at the local middle school, and we can speculate, at least, that he was directing his account to local officials and representing himself and his class as the people who had the town’s interests at heart. Similarly, the weaver, author of a diary Pandey studies, far from being untouched, is himself the head (sardar) of an upwardly mobile crafts group identifying themselves no longer as julaha (“weaver,” a category so humble that the term is also glossed “blockhead”) but as nurbaf (“weaver of light,” a positive term of Persian, hence learned, etymology). [BACK]

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