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2. Claiming Space in the Larger Community

7. Island in a Sea of Ignorance

Dimensions of the Prison Mosque

Robert Dannin

with photographs by Jolie Stahl

“Islam allows you to look beyond the wall.”

The spatial metaphors in the title and epithet above suggest significant dimensions of the role of Islam in the lives of African-American prisoners. Islam, unlike the “sea of ignorance,” offers an autonomous source of education and discipline in all aspects of life. Islam, moreover, situates the prisoner not only in the context of the controlling prison but in a context that reaches, ultimately, worldwide—“beyond the walls.” At its best, Islam has provided prisoners with order, community, and purpose.

In 1992, the New York State Department of Corrections (DOCS) counted 10,186 registered Muslim inmates in eighty-two different prisons, annexes, and reception centers, a significant increase over the 7,554 counted only three years earlier. African-American Muslims constitute more than 16.9 percent of the total state prison population of more than 60,000, and more than 30 percent of all incarcerated African-Americans.[1] In other populous states, such as New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, and California, one can confirm the same trends toward Islamic conversion and its institutionalization in the form of permanent mosques, special dispensations for the faithful, and the professionalization of a corps of Muslim chaplains paid by the state to assist with counseling and services.[2]

Green Haven is a maximum security prison located 80 km north of New York City in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Rising from the abundantly lush slopes of upstate farmland to disrupt the traveller’s gaze, the fortresslike prison evacuates its surrounding ecology. The rectilinear form signifies an urban intrusion. Once inside its tomblike labyrinth, sectioned by iron gates, one confronts the reality of Foucault’s “complex social machine” defined by the principles of labor, detention, and surveillance. According to a former inmate, the prison is designed to subjugate the prisoner totally. He is fixed within an architecturally determinate structure of corridors, yards, blocks, and cells, where all quotidian movements are programmed months or even years in advance.

But if one tries to extend the Foucauldian idea of the prison as a simulacrum of the medieval monastery (Foucault 1979), there is a realization that something has changed, because this architecture conducive to introspection and Christian rebirth has increasingly become a place of mosques and communal prayers. The predictable monastic effect has been achieved, but somewhere its content has been subverted. As late as the 1930s, when the access and flow of information could be restricted, it might have been possible to influence the spiritual conduct of inmates and perhaps to limit their acquaintance with anything but the most traditional Western religions. However, by most accounts the Islamic din is now entering its fourth decade in American penal institutions. The significance of this is that the ideals of rehabilitation have been changed by those inside prisons. This is a radical departure from previous models of reform by even the most liberal criminologists (Baker 1964; Brody 1974).

Islam offers a counterdiscipline, a counterforce to the prison’s own ideal of stringent discipline (Cloward et al. 1960). In the words of a young Los Angeles gangbanger:

Islam has changed my life tremendously. It has caused me to be disciplined to an extent I never thought possible. I came out of a culture that reveled in undiscipline [sic] and rebelliousness, so to go the opposite direction was major for me.…I firmly believe and see that for the 1990s and beyond, Islam will be an even more dynamic force and alternative for many prisoners, especially the confused youth, who are more and more receptive to the teachings of Islam and the self-esteem it provides them in abundance, not to mention the knowledge.[3]

This attractiveness of the “discipline” of Islam in the context of a repressive mechanism conforms to Foucault’s understanding of the fluidity of power—its direction never quite corresponds to the purpose for which it was initially employed. Islam’s popularity in the prison system rests in part on the way in which qur’anically prescribed activities structure an alternative social space that enables the prisoner to reside, as it were, in another place within the same confining walls.

Masjid Sankore: “Medina” for New York’s Prisons

Founded in 1968, Masjid Sankore became the first recognized Islamic institution in a New York prison. Its founders were several African-American converts who in the late 1960s collectively sought assistance from Muslims outside the prison in a crusade to ameliorate their conditions of worship. They turned particularly to the leaders of Brooklyn’s indigenous Dar ul-Islam movement, who soon were making regular visits and offering assistance in negotiating with the prison administration, as well as with the outside world. Eventually, the Muslims won the warden’s approval to establish a permanent prayer hall and named their mosque after an ancient African center of Islamic teaching in Timbuktu, Mali.

Sankore rapidly outgrew its initial cramped space, eventually taking over the prison’s old tailor shop, a comparatively spacious area with real pillars. The prisoners devoted much time and effort organizing the space into a genuine masjid and a place of refuge from the drab confines of the rest of the prison. “When you walked in there, it was another world. You didn’t feel like you were in Green Haven in a maximum security prison. Officers [guards] never came in. It was like going into any other masjid on the outside; you felt at home,” commented Sheikh Ismail Abdul Raheem, one of the first emissaries from the “Dar” movement to visit Sankore. The door to the mosque announced a transition to a different space (fig. 23). Once inside, it provided space for quiet, interaction, and, above all, communal prayer (fig. 24).

Figure 23. Door to Masjid Sankore at Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.
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Figure 24. Friday prayers at Masjid Sankore, Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.
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Sheikh Ismail also recalled that, in the early years, both the Sunni Muslims and the Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) practiced a cadenced march through the corridors as if to mark out their own militant counterdisciplinary tradition. That was the only thing they shared, however. The Nation sought and demanded its own mosque, which after 1976 became the American Muslim Mission Mosque (fig. 25), known as the Masjid ut Taubah (the Mosque of Repentance). Today, the American Muslim Mission and the Nation of Islam compete fiercely with the Sunnis for new initiates at Green Haven. Because of official policy, life-sentence prisoners as well as those viewed as potentially disruptive to the prison regime are transferred every few years in and out of the ten different maximum security prisons in the state. Thus as time went on, alumni of Sankore spread their Islamic fervor throughout the correctional system. Simultaneously, the Nation of Islam and orthodox Sunni groups like the Dar ul-Islam Movement won further concessions on behalf of Muslim inmates. In these negotiations with authorities, the Dar’s “Prison Committee” used Masjid Sankore as the standard against which Islamic religious freedom in prison was measured.

Figure 25. The American Muslim Mission mosque, the Masjid ut-Taubah, in Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.
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By 1972, the official status of Muslim inmates was further enhanced by the role they had played during the bloody Attica uprising of the previous autumn. Contrary to their image as militant radicals, the Muslims in Attica protected their guards and used their power as a disciplined, self-governing inmate organization to reestablish order during a period where the entire prison society was threatened with permanent anarchy. For the first time in history, inmates formed a disciplined syndicate, visibly identifiable by their prayer caps (kufa) and manicured beards, whose outlook was linked neither to the old criminal subculture nor to the rebellious militant ideologies of the epoch. Consequently, the embattled Department of Corrections offered them a modicum of legitimacy and surrendered some of its own power to govern the prison in a tacit alliance with the Muslims.

Following the Attica riot, DOCS designated Green Haven, the scene of similarly explosive tensions, a “program facility,” where emphasis was placed on learning and rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. College courses, vocational training, substance-abuse programs, work release, and family-reunion visits resulted directly from a negotiation of inmate demands and the actions of newly appointed liberal administrators. Muslims were situated at the center of these activities and forced the administration to submit to literal interpretations of laws pertinent to religious freedom for prisoners. During this period, they asserted the right to perform daily salāt, and they even achieved relative financial autonomy by importing and selling legal commodities from the outside. Masjid Sankore instituted classes in qur’anic instruction and Arabic. Prisoners throughout the state referred to Green Haven’s masjid as the “Medina” of the system—a place of hijra in the sense of retreat, refuge, and reconstruction. According to records from the Islamic Center, Sankore had more converts to Islam than any other mosque in America during the years 1975 and 1976. Some of the converts were outside guests or even corrections personnel, who would often volunteer to work Sankore religious events without pay (Mustafa et al. 1989). Other successful prison mosques were eventually started in Attica, Auburn, Clinton, Comstock, Elmira, Napanoch, Ossining, Shawangunk, and Wende. A family reunion visit at Wende is shown in figure 26.

Figure 26. Shu’aib Adbur Raheem, a former imam of Masjid Sankore, and his wife during a family reunion visit at Wende Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.
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The Conversion of Black Power Militants

If Attica provoked a period of liberalization inside these largely uncontrollable institutions, it also stimulated intensification of the covert domestic war led by the FBI against black revolutionaries, who were held responsible for the prison uprisings, as well as for waves of bombings and armed attacks on government targets. In New York, at least a dozen Black Panthers were jailed with sentences of 25-years-to-life. The decapitation of the entire political spectrum of the black movement, including the assassinations of Malcom X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, led to a general crisis of demoralization among urban blacks. Aided by the Islamic conversion of H. Rap Brown, the imprisoned leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,[4] an alternative began to attract numerous revolutionary figures whose apprehensions about religion were assuaged by the teaching that “Islam was not inconsistent with their revolutionary goals.” Like Brown, who changed his name to Jamil Al-Amin, they turned their grassroots skills for mass organizing toward Islamic da‘wa (propagation) and soon began to offer the Qur’an to fellow inmates as a substitute for revolutionary or African nationalist literature. The programs of former militants came to envision personal rebirth as a prerequisite for social transformation, a position supported by the passage, “Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves with their own soul” (Qur’an 13:11 or 8:53).

The tremendous effect of these words on Black Power advocates is reflected in the testimony of a member of the Black Liberation Army, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1973:

I was a very determined socialist when I was placed in jail with another black leader. He had already accepted Islam, and I was confronted by his daily prayers. At first I could not understand why he was praying to a god who, I felt, had abandoned black people. We argued and battled, but eventually Islam helped me become more relaxed. It relieved a burden because I had become frustrated by the failure of the political movement. And then you read the ayat in the Qur’an where Allah told the Prophet, “Maybe we might show you a victory in your lifetime. Maybe we won’t, but you must keep striving.” So then you start to see things in a broader perspective, outside of yourself as an individual. It was then that I realized that black revolutionaries didn’t suffer a major defeat, but that we were part of an ongoing process that would eventually culminate in victory.[5]

Prison, it can be argued, is a bizarre and violent “university” for those who reach maturity behind bars. There the brutality and corruption of the street are magnified to gargantuan proportions. Even to the extent that he complies with the rules of incarceration, the prisoner becomes entangled in a world of material desires and moral prostitution. From the lowly prisoner up to the warden, by way of the prisoners known as “big men,” snitches, guards, program instructors, and bureaucrats, prison is a pathological society asserting a unique institutional order. This regime codifies various methods used to alter and perhaps destroy the inmate’s physical and psychological integrity. It forces him to regiment his personal habits and behavior in accordance with the social ecology of the prison. In preparation for his eventual release on parole, the inmate studies a “curriculum” of ruse and discipline. He learns few of the many skills necessary to lead a law-abiding life back on the street. Even worse, as part of his daily transactions in the prison environment, the prisoner is subjected to a hierarchy of physical brutality, psychological manipulation, and frequent homosexual rape. The prison is an administrative-bureaucratic space that marks every aspect of the inmate’s existence unless he can use his minimal rights to circumscribe an autonomous zone whose perimeter cannot officially be contested.

A New Pedagogy of the Incarcerated

Acting through the principle of freedom of worship, Islam meets these conditions and shows a remarkable capacity to redefine the conditions of incarceration. A new Muslim repeats the attestation of faith, the shahada, before witnesses at the mosque. His Islamic identity then means a fresh start, symbolized by the choice of a new name, modifications in his physical appearance, and an emphasis on prayer. He is linked to his Muslim brothers worldwide, as suggested by frequent representations of Mecca in the mosque’s decor, for example in the mosque shown in figure 25 above. More immediately, he is linked to his fellow Muslim prisoners. Inmates like those at Masjid Sankore, thanks to communal prayer, qur’anic and Arabic scholarship, and invocation of shar‘ia have been able to exercise significant group control over their fellows. Historically, Christian prison reformers envisioned conversion as cloistered reflection or silent prayer. Islamic teaching, however, changes self-image and social relationships primarily through communal prayer and qur’anic recitation, which establish ties of identification and action between the Muslim believers and the sacred texts of the Qur’an and Sunna. Through religious practice,[6] the prisoner distances himself from the outside world, conceptualized as dar al-harb, and migrates (hijra) toward the ideal of dar al-Islam, defined not by territory but by Islamic practice. The greater the capacity of the prison jama‘a (congregation) to establish the privilege of congregational prayer, the greater the potential effect upon the individual Muslim. It is an impressive sight to see 50 or 100 prisoners bowing and kneeling in prayer in the middle of a prison exercise yard or in a room isolated within a maze of corridors and cells, as in figure 24, above. Since 1973, after consulting the Islamic Center in New York, DOCS has recognized four holidays: Hijra (New Year’s Day), Maulid al-nabi (the Prophet’s birthday), ‘Id al-fitr (feast commemorating the end of the Ramadan fast), and ‘Id al-adha (feast of the sacrifice). During the Ramadan fast, Muslims can requisition halal meat and are permitted to use the kitchen to prepare iftar meals. For breaking the fast, they are also permitted exceptionally to take some of the food back to their cells.

The Muslim’s cell can be recognized by the absence of photographic images and the otherwise ubiquitous centerfold pinups of naked women. When a man becomes a shahada (convert), he gradually learns the proper etiquette for a Muslim inmate. To reorganized personal space corresponds a changed attitude toward his body for the new Muslim. He tries to avoid pork and other non-halal foods; some prisoners even object to the use of utensils that have touched forbidden foods. The issue of providing halal diets to Muslim prisoners in New York State has been in litigation for many years, with the state now using the excuse of budgetary constraints to refuse. The convert also becomes concerned with wuzu (ablution), here transformed into a code of personal cleanliness and grooming. In addition to their kufa (skullcaps), beards, and djellabah (long shirts), the Muslims are usually well scrubbed, and, as advised in the orientation booklet, often wear aromatic oils when entering the mosque. The use of personal toiletries defines the Muslim’s body as different from the sweaty, disciplined body of the ordinary prisoner. Cigarette smoking is also frowned upon among orthodox Muslims.

In respect to a prisoner’s repressed sexual desire, the Islamic regime acquires double significance in its strict opposition to homosexuality. Certainly, it upholds qur’anic injunctions and encourages the sublimation of desire into a rigorous program of study and prayer. More subtly, however, a man’s adherence to these injunctions illustrates counterdisciplinary resistance to one of the more overt dominance hierarchies encountered in prison life. Sexual possession, domination, and submission represent forms of “hard currency” in prison. Thus by asserting the distinction between halal and haram, between what is permitted and what is forbidden, the Muslim community simultaneously follows Islamic law and negates one of the defining characteristics of prison life.

The most contentious issue regarding the prisoner’s body involves surveillance and personal modesty. For example, during the 1970s, the Prison Committee worked with the state to arrange special times for Muslims to shower as a way to ensure privacy. Eventually, DOCS designated Thursday nights for Muslims to coordinate showers among themselves. A related yet unresolved issue is the “strip search,” when men are forced to strip naked and submit to an inspection of their body cavities. Many prisoners refuse to undergo this procedure. Consequently, they file grievances, risk being “written up,” sent to the “hole,” or even beaten if they refuse too vehemently. Lawsuits have been filed, but the courts have backed up the wardens, who insist that security issues take precedence over freedom of religious expression.[7]

The Muslim community generates a certain degree of physical, emotional, and even biological relief from the grinding prison discipline. This extraordinarily synthetic capacity to alter the cognitive patterns of an inmate’s world may even carry over into the realm of taste (halal diet), sight (reverse-direction Arabic script, calligraphy, absence of images, geometrical patterns, etc.), and smell (aromatic oils, incense). By staking out an Islamic space and filling it with a universe of alternative sensations, names, and even a different alphabet, the prison jama‘a establishes the conditions for a relative transformation of the most dreaded aspect of detention—the duration of one’s sentence, the “terror of time.” No other popular inmate association has proved itself capable of redefining the prison sentence in such a long-term way, for in its most successful manifestation, Islam has the power to reinterpret the notion of “doing time” into the activity of “following the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad.”[8] Prisoners spend much of their time engaged in qur’anic study, conducted according to a nationwide curriculum, moving through various levels from elementary instruction in beliefs and behavior (‘aqida and adab) to advanced scholarship in law, qur’anic commentary, and theology (fiqh,tafsir, and kalaam). There is even a course in leadership training to prepare prisoners for their roles as imams in other jails or on the street.

Materials for these classes, including cassette and video tapes and books, were initially donated by concerned Muslim organizations, but for the past ten years, Muslim inmates themselves have earned surprisingly large amounts of cash through their monopoly of the distribution and sale of aromatic oils, incense, and personal toiletries throughout the prison system. These funds are also used for the elaborate carpentry and calligraphic painting that is done in their mosques, as well as for the catering of ritual feasts for the Muslim ‘Id-al fitr and ‘Id al-adha holidays. They contribute to the sponsorship of intramural cultural events, which are often staged for the purpose of da‘wa. Sankore even published a critically acclaimed newsletter, Al-Mujaddid (The Reformer), which has found its way to important readers throughout the Muslim world sparking international concern for Sankore’s inmates, as well as donations in the form of Qur’ans and other literature, from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Sheikhs, diplomats, and other emissaries from Muslim countries traveled to Green Haven to visit Sankore. Even the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, met with Green Haven’s Muslim community to thank them for the hospitality extended to a Jewish inmate who was welcomed to conduct Hebrew prayers in a corner of the mosque after being ostracized by his own synagogue. The prison mosque is not only the center of religious instruction but also serves as an alternate focus of authority within the prison. Its power is determined mainly by its large membership, who legitimize the influence of their chosen leaders with respect to the larger inmate hierarchy, encompassing representatives of powerful ethnic gangs such as the Mafia and the Chinese triads, or white fascist parties such as the Aryan Brotherhood and the Ku Klux Klan.[9] For example, in the late 1970s, Sankore’s inmate imam was Rasul Abdullah Sulaiman, who came to prison already possessing some of Malcolm X’s charisma because he had been a prominent member of the latter’s entourage. He quickly rose to such a powerful position within the prison that he had his own telephone and traveled around the place at will, accompanied by a corps of surly bodyguards. He arranged the visits of outside Muslim dignitaries, brought family and friends of the prisoners into the masjid for prayer every Friday, and reportedly even constructed a network of small bunks inside the mosque for conjugal visits after jum‘a (Friday prayer).[10]

This was the period when Sankore achieved its reputation as the most important center for Islamic da‘wa in America. Before his release in 1980, Rasul married the mother of a fellow inmate, and his new “stepson” was elected imam. This union resulted in the effective and orderly transition of power in the mosque after Rasul’s release on parole. “Sheiks” who study tafsir, fiqh and Hadith, moreover, use these skills to play a role in councils (majlis) to resolve conflicts and keep the peace (fig. 27). They challenge the secular jailhouse standard of status based on physical strength or a manipulative intellect.

Figure 27. The Majlis ash-Shura, or high council, of Masjid Sankore at Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y., with the author, 1988. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.
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It is possible to explore the deeper implications of the Islamic pedagogy of African-American prisoners if we look at the process of Islamization as a negotiation between the prison authorities and the Muslim inmates where the state’s logic of institutional order meets the fundamentalist doctrine of Pax Islamica, according to which the world consists of only two domains, the dar al-Islam, literally, the House of Peace, and the dar al-harb, the House of War, which is identical with non-Muslim territory. The reorientation and purification of personal space is made possible for the Muslim prisoner through a serious counterdisciplinary regime. Once he is known as a Muslim, the prisoner has little choice but to follow this new set of rules or else he risks at least the disapprobation of his fellow inmates and possibly a physical lashing. Non-Muslims who have been around long enough to understand the alternative set of rules will even admonish the novice convert (mubari) if he is derelict in performance of his obligations.

As enforced by the incarcerated community in general, the shar‘ia becomes an autonomous self-correcting process administered by and for Muslims. “A Muslim’s blood is sacred. We will not allow anyone to shed a Muslim’s blood without retaliation. The prison population knows this and would prefer for us to handle our situation.”[11] So widespread is the fierce reputation of the incarcerated Muslim that the most ruthless urban drug dealers carefully avoid harming any Muslim man, woman, or child lest they face extreme prejudice during their inevitable prison terms.

If this capacity to purify and control Islamic space is remarkable in its consistency, it is not without problems. Inmates may come to Islam merely for protection, not to find a new life. Or they may mistakenly believe that they can absolve past misdeeds and change themselves simply by changing their names and reciting the kalima shahada. They then give the outward appearance of devotion but end up returning to prison having committed the same crimes. Generally, however, low recidivism rates and success in the rehabilitation of drug and alcohol addiction, win tolerance, even approval, for Muslims (Caldwell 1966).

The numbers of practicing Muslims remain significant and their influence continues to rise among the transient populations who fluctuate between prison and the devastated streets of America’s urban ghettos. This calls to mind a comment to the effect that all African-American youths have at least some familiarity with Islam, either through a personal encounter, a relative, a friend, a fashionable item of apparel, or, as is more frequently the case today, in the form of rap music poems.[12] Islam constitutes a cultural passport, whose bearer may exercise the option to depart the anomic zone of ghetto life for destinations mapped out by the Qur’an and Sunna. Nowhere is this option more evident than inside a maximum security prison, where the literal interpretation of the Prophet’s hijra functions as a utopian itinerary and an alternative vision of truth and justice. It insulates the prisoner against the dulling experience of incarceration by inducing him to a regime of five daily exercises (salāt), consisting of a series of obligatory prostrations, that not only transforms the physical relationship to his immediate personal space but also restructures time according to a daily, weekly, and annual calendar of rites that correspond neither with the prison nor with American society at large.

In this sense, Islamic pedagogy has an invigorating effect upon the prison convert. The Qur’an becomes his instructional manual of counterdiscipline. Its study opens more than new scriptural potentials and interpretive traditions, more than simply a new grammar, phonetics, and vocabulary (Arabic), but also an impenetrable code whose messages elude all but the most devout. As a consequence, this counterculture is not simply a ritual of distraction but an ontological reconstruction occurring within a well-defined space, dar al-Islam, characterized by a common set of sensory values evident in smell (aromatic oils, incense); sight (elimination of literal and plastic art forms, elevation of figurative and stylized forms); sound (qur’anic recitation), taste (halal diet) and touch (promotion of strict interpersonal modesty). New intellectual values focus upon the Islamic sciences, particularly fiqh, and new ideas about geopolitics and history from an Islamic perspective.

These values have compelled many African-Americans to review traditional interpretations of their ethno-history, literature, and folklore. Through the prism of Islam, the African-American Muslim invokes a new hermeneutic of power: historically captured, enslaved, and transported to the New World, then miseducated and forced to live an inferior existence, the African-American must enshrine powerlessness even in the act of remembrance, celebration of, or reverence for his ancestors. But his conversion to Islam adds new dimensions to that history, particularly as it emphasizes the presence of African Muslims and nonslave populations, as well as evidence of resistance to Christianization.

Islam symbolizes the aggregate value of authentic African-American culture. In the past, dance, music, fashion, narrative, and even certain forms of Christianity (e.g., Afro-Baptism) have served to mediate, if not transcend, social, racial, and economic oppression. As revealed through the experience of prison da‘wa, Islamic discipline has the power to effect this ontological transformation through a series of counterdisciplinary measures. In terms of social relations, Islam teaches that those who lack the power to transform their material conditions need only reflect upon the ideal qur’anic past in order to see themselves as contemporary actors in a world whose rules of social distinction are neither tangible nor fixed unless they are divine. In this way, Islam deals with class, ethnic, and racial differences—even those as widely divergent as between freedom and incarceration—by collapsing the past, the present, and the future into a simultaneity of space and identity. To the extent that Islam succeeds in America’s prisons, it offers a closed but definitive response to the modern dilemma of justice in an unjust world.

By instituting a strict code of behavior and by networking with other prisoners, the Sunni Muslims established a unique identity. While they are predominantly African-American in membership, there are now a few Arabic- or Urdu-speaking prisoners, and more recently a handful of Senegalese Muslims. Green Haven today, however, as noted above, is divided between two mosques, Sankore and ut-Taubah. The Muslims at ut-Taubah have pledged bay‘a to Warith D. Muhammed, whose imams are always the civilian chaplains appointed by DOCS.

In Attica Prison, the Muslim communities united in 1985 under the aegis of a strong Sunni presence, but there, too, the administration is seen as fomenting disputes, and the community remains unstable because of ongoing differences between Sunnis and members of Farrakhan’s resuscitated Nation of Islam. The Sunni Muslims, who labored to unify Islam under a homogeneous practice, are seeing their space fission once again. “The Nation of Islam has recently been restructured and separated from the Sunni community.…There are approximately three hundred Muslims in the facility” (Rahman 1989). Less than twenty-five miles from Attica at Wende Correctional Facility, similar issues plagued the unified jama‘a (Raheem 1991).[13]

For all these problems, the goal has always been to create a territory that is neither “of the prison” nor “of the street” but a “world unto itself” defined by the representational space that is common to Muslims worldwide. The profundity of this spatial vision is evident in the metaphor, quoted in the title above, used by one prisoner serving a 25-years-to-life sentence: “In here the Muslims are an island in a sea of ignorance.” Islam’s attraction for prisoners lies in its power to transcend the material and often brutally inhuman conditions of prison. Although it may seem to some just another jailhouse mirage, the Muslim prisoner sees entry into that space as a miracle of rebirth, and one that may even spread from the prison to the street.


1. The prisons we visited during this study with their 1992 Muslim populations (1989 in parentheses) were Sullivan 84 (112), Green Haven 348 (286), Auburn 310 (234), Attica 388 (327), Wende 125 (74), and Eastern 175 (135). We did not include Riker’s Island, with its active Muslim missionary activity, nor the some 305 Muslims registered among female inmates at various institutions. [BACK]

2. There are an estimated one million African-American Muslims in the United States today. [BACK]

3. Letter from Mujahid al-Hizbullahi, 1991. [BACK]

4. By the late 1960s, SNCC was militant and advocated armed revolution despite its name. H. Rap Brown was the alleged author of the famous phrase, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” He was hunted down and shot by New York police under the same conspiracy law that produced the famous Chicago 7 trial. [BACK]

5. Interview with Sheikh Albert Nuh Washington on April 11, 1988. [BACK]

6. Our formulation of the notion of “counterdiscipline” relies on the ideas expressed by De Certeau, especially his discourse on the impact of scriptural recitation. [BACK]

7. One might argue that the prevalence of advanced electronic detectors, used especially to screen incoming visitors to the prison, obviates the need to continue the strip search unless it is being retained for its general disciplinary effect of symbolic submission and acknowledgement of the state as the ultimate authority over a prisoner’s body. [BACK]

8. Such formulas are not uncommon in our own secular experience. For example, the practice of substituting an odometer (which measures distance or space) for a chronometer is common during long-distance commercial air travel. An airline pilot rarely mentions travel time. Usually, he refers to time only immediately after takeoff and just prior to landing. On the other hand, he may refer to visual landmarks periodically throughout the flight as a way of representing the distance traveled. Obviously, this practice evolved as a way of easing the journey by relieving the passengers of the “terror of time.” [BACK]

9. Ironically, the KKK has become a model for cooperation between white prisoners and guards. It is often referred to as the guards’ “labor union.” [BACK]

10. In the course of this study, we have met at least three children who were conceived inside Green Haven prison. [BACK]

11. Remark by Jalil A. Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Liberation Army and akhbar (secretary of information) of Sankore. [BACK]

12. A sampling of the fusion of Islam, the prison experience, and early rap music can be heard on tracks such as “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle” (The Last Poets, Delights of the Garden [New York: Celluloid Records, CEL 6136, 1987]), “Oh My People” and “Hold Fast” (The Last Poets, Oh My People [New York: Celluloid Records, CEL 6108, 1987]), and “Time” (The Last Poets, The Last Poets [New York, Celluloid Records, CEL 6101, 1984]). Another recording, Hustler’s Convention (New York: Celluloid, CEL 6107, n.d.), develops the classic prison “toast,” the prisoner’s autobiographical narrative. [BACK]

13. For background on the Nation of Islam, see Marsh 1984; Jamal 1971; Malcolm X and Alex Haley 1966; Perry 1991. [BACK]

Works Cited

Baker, J. E. 1964. “Inmate Self-Government.” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 55, 1: 39–47. UC-eLinks

Brody, Stuart. 1974. “The Political Prisoner Syndrome.” Crime and Delinquency 20 (April): 102–11. UC-eLinks

Caldwell, Wallace F. 1966. “A Survey of Attitudes Toward Black Muslims in Prison.” Journal of Human Relations. UC-eLinks

Cloward, Richard A., et al.1960.Theoretical Studies in the Social Organization of the Prison. New York: Social Science Research Council. UC-eLinks

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. UC-eLinks

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books. UC-eLinks

Jamal, Hakim. 1971. From the Dead Level: Malcolm X and Me. New York: Random House. UC-eLinks

Malcolm X, and Alex Haley. 1966. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books. UC-eLinks

Marsh, Clifton. 1984. From Black Muslims to Muslims. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press. UC-eLinks

Mustafa, Khalil, et al.1989. “Overview Revealing the Premeditated Overthrowing of the Sankore Masjid Green Haven Correctional Facility and Those Similarly Situated Throughout New York State Correctional Facilities.” Unpublished report. UC-eLinks

Perry, Bruce. 1991. Malcolm. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill. UC-eLinks


Raheem, Sheikh Ismail Abdul. 1991. Interview with the author, Brooklyn, N.Y. February 12.

Raheem, Shu’aib Abdur. 1988. Interview with the author, Alden, N.Y. November 26.

Rahman, Da’ud. 1989. Interview with the author, Attica, N.Y. July 17.

8. A Place of Their Own

Contesting Spaces and Defining Places in Berlin’s Migrant Community

Ruth Mandel

In a mosque in Berlin, located in a cavernous, unheated former textile factory, now subdivided and shared by a dozen migrant families, a Turkish Sunni hoca (religious leader, teacher, or preacher) told me that he and many other migrants intend to remain in Europe until the last European Christian has converted to Islam. This vision of the transformation of Europe to a landscape populated with Muslims and ruled by Islamic law is not, however, the only one held by migrants from Turkey. For example, some of the minority Alevis from Turkey, in radical contrast, extol the virtues and tolerance of their newfound European homes. These two divergent visions of “place” have created in Kreuzberg—the so-called Turkish ghetto of Berlin—a highly variegated ecology of Muslim experience. For some, Christian Europe is a land of infidels, and most certainly experience religious hardship there. For others, Europe is, rather, a land of opportunity. In this essay, after describing Kreuzberg, I address the complex expressions of Islam among Sunni and Alevi migrants, and discuss some of the ways in which these expressions change as a result of migration.[1]

Demography, Zoning, and Square Meters

German discourse about the “foreigner problem” often claims that the high Turkish birthrate will eventually overwhelm Germans demographically, particularly given the negative birthrate among the native German population.[2] Berlin’s foreign population remains the highest in Germany. West Berlin experienced a decline in population over the fifteen years encompassing the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, with the number of residents falling from 2,268,718 in 1973 to 2,156,209 in 1986. However, West Berlin’s foreign population grew from 178,415 to 257,916, about 12 percent of the whole. Despite alarmist rhetoric, however, Turks in Kreuzberg made up only 19.3 percent of the quarter’s legal residents in 1983: of a total population of 139,590, 28.7 percent, or 40,025 residents, were foreigners, of whom 26,952, or 67.3 percent, were Turks. In the next three years Kreuzberg’s foreign population barely changed, standing at 40,087 in 1986, compared to 110,490 Germans (West Berlin Municipal Government 1986). By 1992, the population of West Berlin was 2,163,040. However, German/German unification drove the figure for the new, united Berlin up to 3,456,891 in 1992, of whom 3,070,980, or 88.8 percent, were German. Of the 11.2 percent who were registered foreigners in 1992, 138,738, or 36 percent, were Turks, who thus comprised 4 percent of the city’s total population.

There are far more Turks in Kreuzberg than official figures indicate, and their number would no doubt be larger but for restrictive zoning laws regulating the whereabouts of foreigners. These laws, enforced by the Ausländerpolizei (Aliens Police), identify three quarters of the city—Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Tiergarten—as off-limits to the least desirable foreigners (those from the Third World). These are the three districts with the highest percentages of Turkish residents, with 19.3 percent, 13.7 percent, and 10.2 percent respectively. This restrictive regulation has been only partially successful. Informal restrictive covenants effectively prevent foreigners from renting housing outside these three neighborhoods, forcing them to circumvent the zoning laws. Housing has thus been a perpetual problem for the Turks of Berlin, with people shifting among several occasional and illegal residences. A Turk may be registered with the Ausländerpolizei at an address in a quarter that is not off-limits, perhaps the home of a sympathetic friend or relative, while actually living in Kreuzberg in a flat legally registered to others.

Turks also suffer because of the legally required minimum number of square meters per inhabitant in every flat set in 1977 (Castles 1984: 79).[3] Turkish families commonly fail to meet this requirement, based as it is on German, not Turkish, habits. Turks resort, therefore, to some form of false residency registration. It is not uncommon for a Turkish family of, say, seven, perhaps including three generations, to live, eat, and sleep in two rooms. Turks often sleep on dösek, futonlike mattresses, laid side by side at night and folded up and stacked in a corner by day, when the room becomes the living and dining room.

A visitor usually can ascertain if indeed this is the sleeping arrangement in a Turkish home by the presence or absence of the telltale alarm clock on a low shelf of the requisite huge breakfront in this multipurpose room. (Many migrants work very early shifts on construction jobs or in factories and rely on alarm clocks to waken them at 5:00 a.m.). The breakfront is considered a highly desirable piece of furniture in migrant homes, and is used for displaying china, souvenirs, plastic flowers, family photographs—particularly wedding photos—and countless knick-knacks. In front of the sofa, often used for sleeping at night, there will generally be a long, low table, around which the family gathers for meals. Several adults and children might sleep side by side on the floor of one such room. Moreover, space can always be made for guests. Reactions from the Turks to the space requirement range from confusion to embarrassment, as they realize that they are being legally—and morally—sanctioned for what they take to be normal behavior.

Landscapes of Kreuzberg: the Structural, the Social Structural, and the Antisocial

It is no accident that Kreuzberg, the “Turkish ghetto,” is the least-renovated district in western Berlin. In the former West Berlin, it was surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall. Today, in Germany, Turkey, and indeed in many circles throughout Europe, the name Kreuzberg connotes a very specific set of images and associations, which revolve around its reputation as “Kleine Istanbul,” Little Istanbul. However, its notoriety was already established long before the Turks’ arrival in the 1960s, for Kreuzberg has been politically marked for centuries (cf. Spitalfields: Eade, this volume). In the seventeenth century, French Huguenot refugees found asylum there. In the nineteenth century, indigent, landless immigrants from Silesia, Pomerania, and eastern Prussia came in search of work. At the turn of the last century, the district served as home to industrial workshops and small factories, as well as to the workers employed in them. A particular form of building structure was erected to serve these working and living needs. This multilayered, structurally dense and complex configuration was known as the Hinterhaus (back/rear house, or building), designed around a series of Hinterhöfe (back/rear courtyards). This living/working arrangement distinctly delimited a highly stratified social ordering, in brick and mortar, of classes and functions. The rear buildings, unlike those in front, were built of plain brick, lacked direct access to the street and to sunlight, had no private toilets, and were invariably noisy and crowded.

Thus, although they lived in contiguous structures, different social classes experienced vastly different lifestyles. Large courtyard buildings, typically about six stories, opened up to secondary and sometimes tertiary and even fourth courtyard buildings. Sometimes an additional building might jut off one of the sides, or stand free in the middle of the courtyard; this might be a factory or workshop. The spacious sunnier apartments facing the streets were reserved for the wealthy workshop and factory owners. Often these apartments would consist of an entire floor of the building—in other words, the four sides of a square, constructed around the inner courtyard. The workers’ flats in the Hinterhäuser behind the main building and courtyard were smaller, darker (in an already dark city, with fewer sunny days than most in Europe) and hidden from street view.

These are the buildings in which Berlin’s Turkish migrants typically live. Many of their mosques, community, and political organizations are located in such buildings as well (fig. 28). Today, most of the flats have been repeatedly subdivided and allowed to fall into disrepair. Although many façades, and some interiors, have been beautified in a public renovation project undertaken in Kreuzberg in the past decade,[4] in the courtyards beyond the often grandiose entrances, the inner Hinterhaus of run-down, dark, dank buildings remains. These façades are not decorated with elegant Stücken (decorative stucco reliefs) like the adjacent streetside buildings, but instead stand in quasi-ruin, occasionally still pockmarked with bullet holes from World War II.

Figure 28. A Berlin mosque seen through a Hinterhof courtyard. Photograph by Ruth Mandel.
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For many migrants from Turkey, the space of the inner courtyards, where children play and adults socialize, defines their social life. Some apartment houses are known for the regional homogeneity of the residents. Upon entering some of these unrenovated apartment buildings, one is often confronted with the lingering odor of urine emanating from Aussentoileten, tiny shared “water closets” located in the stairwell between floors. In many, there is no central heating, no hot water, and only one cold-water tap. Coal dust in the air settles on clothing, under fingernails, and, of course, in the lungs.

The Germans who live in Kreuzberg are themselves among the powerless: elderly pensioners; alcoholics; the indigent; visual and performing artists seeking loft space for studios, theaters, or cinemas; or other members of counterculture groups, who fall into roughly two categories, the punks and the Alternativen, the latter being the remnants of the Acht-und-sechzigers—the “sixty-eighters,” an expression that refers to the politicized radical activists of the highly charged times surrounding 1968, now closely associated with the Green Party, health food, and communes.[5]

Although for many it is the thriving alternative scene that has lent Kreuzberg its notoriety, for others it is the presence of the Turkish Ausländer (foreigners)—people brought to Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers)—that defines Kreuzberg’s identity as Kleine-Istanbul. The large number of Turks who ride the subway into Kreuzberg have given it the sobriquet “Orient Express.” The train’s final stop is a few blocks from Mariannenplatz, a large park favored by Turkish women and families for picnics. Nicknamed Turken-wiese, the “Turkish pasture” or meadow, this park lies in front of a former children’s hospital, since transformed into Kreuzberg’s Künstlerhaus Bethanean, an artists’ center, often catering to the local Turkish community, which sponsors exhibitions, concerts, theater, and a Turkish children’s library. In addition, it provides studio space to local artists and housing and studio space for temporary foreign artists-in-residence. Mariannenplatz is a popular site for summer outdoor concerts and festivals—alternative art and music fairs, “foreigner festivals,” and the like. Political posters and notices of demonstrations are commonplace. Although Kreuzberg may no longer mark an international frontier, the Turks who live there regularly cross a perilous divide separating two different worlds. They navigate between their worlds, not only when they make the annual vacation trip to Turkey each summer (Mandel 1990), but daily when they leave the Turkish inner sanctums of their cold-water flats, their Turkophone families and neighbors, their Kleine-Istanbul ghetto to enter the German-speaking work world and marketplace, where the characteristic economic relations between “First” and “Third” worlds are linguistically, socially, and cultural reproduced.

Little Istanbul

Both Sunni and Alevi migrants from Turkey take great care to prevent the moral contamination that they believe threatens them in Germany particularly in the form of haram (forbidden) meat, pork. Helal (that which is obligatory or permitted) dietary laws, nearly unconscious in Turkey, have moved to the forefront of concerns in gurbet (exile). Clever entrepreneurs have used the fear of haram to their advantage and have had great success with their helal industries, which sell everything from “helal” sausage to “helal” bread. Elsewhere (Mandel 1988), I have discussed the explicit association many Turks make between pork and promiscuity, which lends still greater fervor to the conspicuous avoidance of German food, restaurants, grocery stores, and butchers. The result has been a proliferation of shops catering nearly exclusively to Turks. Like the British fish-and-chips shop pictured in figure 2, Turkish food shops in Germany typically put the word helal on their signboards, or even post a certificate guaranteeing helal meat.

One of the central Turkish commercial districts is near Schlesisches Tor, the terminus of the subway. The area boasts dozens of Turkish-owned and -operated businesses, carrying Turkish products for Turkish customers: bakeries, tailors, coffeehouses catering exclusively to Turkish men (for card-playing, gambling, drinking), butchers, greengrocers, grocery stores, restaurants, video rental shops, and Turkish travel agencies, some of which also perform several other functions, such as those of insurance agency, realtor, and translation bureau. There is a storefront office housing the Turkish branch of the German Social Democratic Party. Several “Import-Export” shops sell items such as the coffee cups and tea glasses favored by Turks, colorful shiny fabrics, assorted knickknacks, electronic goods, music cassettes, and jewelry. Some of these shops do an excellent business in items for the dowry and baslik, the brideprice.

German-owned shops close promptly at the legal time, whereas Turkish shops have gained a reputation for staying open late. This is widely appreciated, not only by Turks, but by working Germans as well. Furthermore, Turkish greengrocers have acquired a reputation for produce of much higher quality than that offered by their German counterparts. For example, the greengrocer (manav) I patronized received shipments of good fresh produce twice weekly from Turkey. Many Turks in Berlin, and, increasingly some Germans as well, shop at the weekly Friday Turkish open market (pazar) at the Kottbüsser Tor neighborhood of Kreuzberg, winding several blocks along a canal. Stands sell produce, dairy products, meat, flowers, bread, and spices, as well as olives, feta cheese, Turkish tea, and pork-free Turkish sausages. A major social event, this weekly outdoor market is reminiscent of markets held in Turkish towns and cities. Shoppers exchange news, gossip, glances, recipes, and information, and the mood is one of noisy chatter, bargaining, and busyness. Not far from the market are several mosques. In recent years, attendance at mosques has escalated, and after Friday prayers, the streets around them are filled with Turkish men, many identifiable as Muslim by their skullcaps or hats and characteristic beards.

The oldest mosque in Berlin is not in the heart of Kreuzberg, however. Founded in the nineteenth century, Turk Sehitliki Camii served Berlin’s small Muslim community as a house of worship and a cemetery, now overflowing to a huge adjacent area. Even so, many prefer to repatriate bodies for burial “at home.” Figure 29 shows the mosque’s minaret rising above the burial ground.

Figure 29. Minaret at Berlin’s oldest mosque and cemetery complex. Photograph by Ruth Mandel.
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Islamic organizations and parties coexist with the mosques and businesses in Kreuzberg. For example, Refah (Prosperity), Turkey’s main religious party, maintains an active storefront shop and local headquarters in the heart of Kreuzberg. It looks like a bookshop from outside, its windows stocked with books and pamphlets in Turkish on subjects like “Marriage and Wedding in Islam”; “Youth and Marriage: A Marriage Guide”; and “How to Pray” (a manual for children). Juxtaposed with this literature are banners and busts won in sports competitions by the organization’s teams. Inside, a few young men may be milling around drinking tea in the book-filled front room, some wearing Refa lapel pins. A heavy curtain separates the front room from an inside room, which is set up for meetings and lectures, with a large Turkish flag in the front.

Gurbet: Cinema and Exile

Given this physical setting, how do Turks view their life in Germany? In the mid 1980s, a very popular film called Gurbet told the story of the religious, obedient daughter of a migrant family who always wore total “Islamic” dress (kapali), complete with large head scarves and long coats. She associates with Germans, however, who introduce her to liquor, drugs, and miniskirts and rape her. Meanwhile, one of her brothers has become involved with organized crime and is shot. Another brother tracks down the wayward sister; the girl, afraid of what he will do to her, jumps from the top of a high building and kills herself. Germans are made out to be cold, indifferent, calculating, inhuman, and abusive as employers of Turkish workers. They are immoral and sexually promiscuous. The close-up camera work focuses on crucifixes, the breasts of braless German disco dancers, thighs of German girls in miniskirts, and the like. The entire migrant enterprise is portrayed as fraught with tragedy and shame. The Turks do ultimately return to Turkey, but they return either in their coffins, or bitter in mourning for their dead relatives, cursing the day they left their homeland and villages.

Frequent exposure to movies such as this surely play a role in the Turkish viewers’ fears of and attitudes toward Germans. The fear of foreignness reflected in Gurbet is, however, anything but novel. Rather, it is only a new variation of an old theme. Hundreds of similar movies made in Turkey depict nearly identical narratives; the only difference is that Istanbul, instead of Germany, is portrayed as the corruptor of innocence. The ratio expressing the cultural topography is: Turkish village : Turkish city :: Turkey : Germany.

The same values of home, safety, morality are associated with either one’s village or one’s homeland, and stand in sharp contrast to the immorality of gurbet, represented either as the evil city or Germany. Turkey is the village, and Germany the city writ large. Yet Germany is not Turkey and offers constraints and opportunities that shape religious and ethnic life in ways that may also be seen as positive.

Expressions of Islam Abroad: Alevis and Sunnis

For the migrants from Turkey, well-entrenched networks sustain an international movement of personnel that fosters what are seen as competing Turkish and Islamic identities. For example, a bilateral agreement permits the Turkish Ministry of Education to send Turkish teachers to the Federal Republic of Germany to teach public school courses in Turkish history, culture, and civics. These teachers have generally tended to be staunch supporters of Kemalism—by definition, laicists.[6] A lively competition for control of the indoctrination and education processes of the second generation has thus ensued, compounded in 1987 by a major scandal linking key officials in the Turkish government to Saudi Arabian funding of the export of Islamic religious education to Germany.

Many Turks in Germany already were observant Muslims before migrating. However, for others it is the foreign, Christian, German context that provides the initial catalyst for active involvement in religious organizations and worship. In part, this increased identification with Muslim symbols and organizations is a form of resistance (on women and head scarves, see, e.g., Mandel 1989: 27–46) against the prevailing norms of an alien society commonly perceived of as dangerous, immoral, and gavur (infidel).[7] The migrants’ marginality provides the context for explicitly religious expressions and concerns that might not be relevant were they part of society’s mainstream.

Migrants also have opportunities to participate in organizational, preaching, and educational modes that would be illegal in Turkey. All are free from legal constraints on religious activities. The minority Alevis in particular find in the diaspora an environment conducive to expressing their Alevi identity, free from what they perceive as the pressures of a repressive Sunni-dominated order in Turkey.

Repatriated Sunni migrants in Turkey frequently told me that it was in Germany that they had become religious (dinci,dindar); only there had they begun wearing head scarves and attending mosque. Anti-Alevi prejudices migrate along with Sunni Gastarbeiter. Direct contact may overcome some of these, but friendships between the two groups are generally thought of as exceptional. Sunni beliefs about the alleged immorality, ritualized incestuous practices, and impure nature of the Alevis are deeply ingrained. The second-generation young people thus rarely marry outside sectarian boundaries.

Head Scarves and Alevis

The official government position is that the majority, perhaps 80 percent, of Turkey’s nearly sixty million citizens are indeed Muslim and identify on some level with the Hanefi branch of Sunni Islam. However, it is estimated that approximately 20 percent of the population, some ten million, adhere to the “heterodox” sect of the Alevis.[8] Although the Alevis share many dogmatic tenets with Shi‘ism, they do not identify with the Iranian Shi‘a, the Syrian ‘Alawites, or any other Shi‘a group. For decades in Turkey, the Alevis have had reputations as leftists and communists of various persuasions.

Many, if not most, of the anti-Alevi allegations revolve around morality and women. In Germany, one of the symbolic markers of religious affiliation that has grown in importance is the head scarf. The closer the scarf is to a totally covering veil, the higher its piety/prestige value. Therefore, one mode used by observant Sunnis to differentiate themselves from the Alevis is by the type of headgear one wears or has one’s wife and daughter wear, since a woman’s public appearance directly reflects on her male relatives. Many observant Sunnis are offended by Alevi practices. They speak disparagingly of Alevi women and girls parading about without this symbolic barrier of cloth, an ostensible protector, announcer, and definer of morality.

Alevi women in Germany frequently do not wear scarves. This is especially true of those who were born in Germany or who came as children. Their middle-aged mothers might wear kerchiefs (loosely tied, revealing hair) on the street, but never a complete three-layer semi-veil. This lack of concern for scarves resonates with the Alevi belief system, which privileges inner qualities over external practices and display such as dress. Indeed, the Alevis, like the Shi‘a generally, practice taqiya, dissimulation (in relation to sectarian affiliation). Following the doctrine of dissimulation, Alevi women need not keep their scarves on to keep their identity intact.

Interestingly, the act of shedding the scarf, an act not particularly significant to Alevis, becomes imbued with meaning for some Germans. This is because the Turkish women’s head scarf has entered German discourse as an important symbol, signifying the will and capacity to integrate (cf. Bloul, this volume). Conservative advocates of repatriation point to the head scarves as proof that Turks are fundamentally incapable of fitting into German society. Others, some of whom might defend the continued presence of Turks on German soil, see the scarf as a marker of backward, patriarchal oppression of women, and try to persuade the wearers to change in order to fit in. A minority among this latter group of German liberals are aware of the differences between Sunnis and Alevis. They are quick to appropriate the Alevis for their own political project and to use them as an example of Turks who “successfully integrate.” Thus, both wearing and not wearing scarves are political and polysemic statements in both German and Turkish societies (Mandel 1989).

Alevis and Sunnis: Separate Spaces in a Shared World

The migrant diaspora context does little to alleviate the already deep-set antagonisms, suspicion, and animosity between Sunnis and Alevis. In fact, if anything, many Sunnis become still more hostile toward Alevis. The unchecked politicization of mosque-centered religious preaching that proliferates in Germany is often directed against infidel immoral Germans, communists, and, by extension, Alevis. Abroad, located as they are in an environment that is characterized as haram, it is easy for anti-Alevi Sunnis to make the association that these heretical Muslims would not only join forces with Germans of the political left but adopt German moral codes as well. Berlin supports dozens of mosques, which focus sectarian identity. The Mevlâna mosque (fig. 30), for example, is located in a modern Berlin-style high-rise, shared with numerous doctors’ practices and residential apartments. Named for the Mevlevi dervish order founded by Jalal ud-din Rumi, a medieval Persian poet who settled in Konya, this mosque is associated with Sufi devotional practices. The signboard depicts Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya.

Figure 30. Concrete apartment/office block with names of residents (several doctors’ practices) and the Mevlâna Camii mosque, Berlin. Photograph by Ruth Mandel.
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The Sunnis and Alevis generally live and operate in very different social circles. It is rare for individual Sunnis to be invited to an Alevi wedding or circumcision celebration—or vice versa. When a Sunni friend of mine in Berlin was asked by an Alevi friend and neighbor to be the kivre (circumcision sponsor; godfather) of his son, the novelty generated quite a bit of gossip. Alevis try to do as much business as possible at Alevi-owned establishments, a preference reinforced by regional identity for both Alevis and Sunnis. In Berlin in 1990, for example, a large group of Alevi families collectively pooled their resources in order to open a private wholesale store. Some claimed that they had been excluded from similar Sunni-owned ventures and therefore wanted their own. Both in Istanbul and in Berlin, I often was astonished at the extent and intricacy of how the Alevi networks functioned. Particularly in Turkey, since Alevis are the minority group, they are more sensitive than Sunnis to the subtle clues and signs that indicate who is who.

Alevis may conceal their identity, as did Haydar, a young Alevi man from eastern Turkey in trying to appeal to Sunni customers in his video shop. In 1985, approximately seventy Turkish video rental shops in West Berlin catered to tens of thousands of clients demanding new films several times a week.[9] At Haydar’s shop, the clientele ranged from young children not tall enough to reach the counter to fatigued working people on the way home from work to single young people congregating to socialize. Relatives and friends of the shop’s owner often dropped in, including several young male cousins and their friends, who would sit in the shop learning to play the lutelike saz, associated with Alevi mystical poetry, under Haydar’s tutelage. At times when he had to work at a second job, his wife, Havva, ran the store.

During the Şeker Bayrami holiday (celebrated at the end of Ramadan), Haydar had a bowl of the conventional candies to give to customers, as well as limon kolonyasi (lemon cologne) to squirt on their hands.[10] Although Haydar offered me some candy, he and his cousins refused to partake of it, his nephew explaining, “We don’t celebrate it—it’s not our holiday. Kurds don’t observe Şeker Bayrami.” When I asked, he admitted that he had meant Alevis, not Kurds. Perhaps he thought that I, a foreigner, might know what Kurds were but not Alevis.[11] He may have been testing me; or, he may have preferred not to implicate himself and his relatives as Alevis.

The very act of providing Bayram candy for Sunni customers was telling. Not only would it please them, it was a good business practice. Consonant with the Alevi practice of dissimulation, Haydar could “act” Sunni; he feared that had he not tried to “pass,” he might have lost customers, who would have taken their business to a Sunni.

From Ritual to Revolution

Alevi and Sunni attitudes to their stay in Germany seem to differ. More Alevis appear to stay. Not only have Alevis left behind their minority religious status, they also have left a particularly difficult political and economic situation. Many are from the poor eastern, Kurdish regions that have been under martial law and suffered protracted civil war. Thus Alevis tend to see themselves as staying in Germany indefinitely. They are more apt than Sunnis to invest in nicer and costlier flats, while Sunnis might stick to a slum and a simple diet of beans, rice, and bread in order to save their money for investment in property or a business in Turkey. I contend that Alevis, by virtue of their historical tenacity in the face of centuries of repression, massacres, and discrimination, see in Germany, not a land of infidels whose influence is to be feared and avoided, but rather a land of opportunity and tolerance, neither of which they have found in Turkey.

Today, in Europe, several Alevi groups conceive of themselves in explicitly political—and national—terms. Perhaps the most extreme, a group calling itself “Kizil Yol” or Red Path, advocates the founding of “Alevistan,” or a nation of Alevis. Taking its model from the struggles of Kurdish separatists for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, these followers of the Red Path are criticized by some on the grounds that Alevilik (Aleviness) is a religion, not a nationality. Most Alevis would not support this nationalist expression of Alevilik, and Kizil Yol is far from representative. Nonetheless, the notion of “Alevistan” is compelling, for it suggests the emergence in the diaspora of a consciously discrete identity that gravitates around a fantastic center.

Thus, it is precisely because of their absence from Turkey and their presence in gurbet, in diaspora, that some Alevis have begun to refashion their identity. Moreover, this condition has afforded them the political and conceptual freedom in which to imagine a nation-state for themselves. In terms of notions of place, it is important to note the influence of the discourse of Western nationalisms, and particularly the idea of the nation-state. For what is perhaps the first time, Alevis have begun to conceptualize themselves in terms of place, in a jargon borrowed from the West—territory.

In Turkey, anti-Alevi repression is felt in multiple realms, in explicitly political activity, and also in the religious domain. In particular, the Alevi practice of their central communal ritual, the cem (pronounced “gem”), was until recently outlawed.[12] The cem is the secret communal Alevi-Bektasi ritual of solidarity and “collective effervescence,” involving song, music, and dervish trance dancing, as well as a reenactment of the martyrdom of Husain (cf. Schubel, this volume). As part of Atatürk’s secularization policies, a law enacted in 1925 closed down all tarikats—religious, often dervish, orders—and forbade their ceremonies and practices. Even prior to this ban, the Alevis were forced to practice the rite of cem in secret. The clandestine nature of the cem is not only suggestive of a restrictive and oppressive political and social climate but resonates as well with the dissimulation condoned and practiced by the Alevis. In addition, the ceremony itself reproduces an identification with the oppression and martyrdom of ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husain.

In this diaspora, the celebration of the cem ritual provides a collective grounding for displaced Alevis. Similarly, it offers a familiar and emotionally charged mytho-historical charter, providing and suggesting an associated code for conduct. In recent years it has been celebrated approximately on an annual basis, although in a novel form and setting. A cem that I attended took place in a run-down working-class district of Berlin whose population boasts a high proportion of foreign—primarily Turkish—residents. It was held in a large hall, deep in a complex of large, old Hinterhäuser (like that in fig. 28), now converted and rented out for discos, parties, and the occasional religious ritual.

This cem was attended by about three hundred people, fairly evenly divided among genders and generations. It was complete with the sacrificed animal, divided, cooked, and eaten together. All presented niyaz offerings of food to the presiding dede. Several musicians played the baglama, or saz, throughout the ceremony. After the emotionally charged dousing of the candles (for the twelve imams and martyrs) came the semah, a type of music and dance associated not only with the Alevis but with dervishes generally. There are many varieties of semah, and the men and women who rose to dance to saz music represented stylistic and regional variants. The music is highly rhythmic, begins slowly, then speeds up as the dancers enter a dervish, or ecstatic trance state.[13]

The ritual and the feast are geographically movable. The organizers had brought the proper decor and affixed it to the wall behind the pirs (who are members of holy lineages). This consisted of pictures of Ali, Hasan, Husain, the other imams, Haci Bektash, the Bektashi Pir Ulusoy, and, to be safe (again, dissimulation), there was a large portrait of Kemal Atatürk. Above all these hung the Turkish flag.

Not only did this Berlin cem occur in an unconventional space, the time continuum was radically transformed as well by the addition of a novel element: video. Three video cameras had been set up, with blinding lights, all operated by amateur cameramen. No one thought it peculiar or paid the cameras any heed. The multiple recordings of the ritual on videocassette offer new meaning to the concepts of participant, observer, and event. For example, a few days after the cem, I was in an Alevi home, and someone suggested they watch it on the VCR. It was put on, but after about five minutes the father of the family demanded that it be turned off. He could not tolerate the children laughing and playing in one part of the room and his cousins on the sofa next to him gossiping about what some of the people in the video were wearing. For him, the only way to watch it was to recapture the intensity and sober ambiance of the ritual itself.

Despite the warehouse environment and the foreign context, it is at events such as this cem that Alevi identity renews itself for the migrants and their children. Much of the novelty lies in the very composition of the group participating—for example, the juxtaposition of pirs from diverse regions of Turkey, all seated at the place of honor, the post, with the officiating dede—some of whom had only become acquainted with one another at the cem itself. Until very recently, such a cem probably would not, could not, take place in Turkey.[14] Yet in the diaspora, highly effective informal networks forge a community of a sort that has never existed at home, as it attempts to worship and celebrate in concert.

Conversely, in the diaspora context, some leftist Alevi activists have again reinterpreted the meaning of the cem. A young leftist Alevi man in Germany explaining the cem in terms of the progressive nature of Alevilik said to me, “Without women there can be no cem; without women there can be no revolution.” Thus, the cem becomes the metaphor and template for social change. Quintessentially polysemic, the cem emerges as a ritual act, either reactionary or revolutionary,[15] depending on the context and interpretation. In its very practice, then, it assumes historical importance as an expression and assertion of an identity that must struggle to survive against odds at home and abroad. In that assertion, historical meanings and relations are assimilated and reinterpreted in a new, contemporary context—for example, “revolution.”

Migrant Alevis have in many ways successfully reversed their hierarchical subordination to Sunni Turks. While steadfast in their Aleviness, they identify with and admire many aspects of German society that Sunnis find threatening. Modeling themselves on certain German, Western modes, they pride themselves on how modern they are, as opposed to the “backward” Sunnis. They point to what they see as their more “democratic, tolerant, and progressive” stance, and to the “marked” village clothing many Sunni women wear: flowing salvar pants, head scarves, and so on. Finally, Alevis tend to be more politically engaged in leftist politics and syndicalism than Sunnis, and, through such activities, have greater contact with Germans. This greater contact with Germans reinforces their self-image as “tolerant.”

The differences between Sunni and Alevi attitudes can be seen in the way the two groups speak of Germans. Alevis referring to Germans will say, for example, “They’re people, too,” whereas Sunnis tend to be critical and dismissive of Germans, commonly disparaging them as gavur. Although still peripheral with respect to Sunnis, the Alevis may be slightly less marginal than Sunnis in relation to mainstream German society. As a consequence of their greater acceptance of German ways and people, they have become more accepted by Germans than are many Sunnis. The status of Alevis is also raised in the eyes of Germans by the fact that they characteristically do not attend mosque, and perhaps also by some aspects of the practice of dissimulation.

While Alevis abroad are doubly marginal, with respect to both Germans and Sunni Turks, their relative position vis-à-vis Sunnis has undergone a transposition. In Germany, Sunni dominance has become less and less relevant as a reference point. Alevis had traditionally defined themselves primarily in opposition to Sunnis, and always in relation to them; now, in Germany, they have in some respects gradually replaced Sunnis with Germans as their salient other. Whereas some Alevis in Germany have taken advantage of Western freedoms to adopt a more inward, communal orientation, unfettered by past political and social constraints, others have opted for an ecumenical stance, and still others choose to dissociate themselves from anything they perceive as religious.

Conclusion: Toponomy, Almanyali, and New Identities

The migrants’ experience of Kreuzberg both derives from and helps to shape its physical reality. Ultimately, despite their presence in “Gavuristan,” the land of the infidel, surrounded by all sorts of things profane and haram, the Turks manage to create and define a world for themselves. The world they construct lies on frontiers ranging from culinary to linguistic, from sartorial to domestic. These markers serve as functional borders delimiting a new center, which, differentially and subjectively interpreted, defines the meaningful expressions of Turkish identity abroad.

This essay has been concerned with the ways migrants from Turkey fit into the existing urban social and physical structures, and have helped to refashion, challenge, and revalorize the German definitions. Paralleling the defining German nicknames “Little Istanbul,” “the Orient Express,” and “Turkish pasture,” some Turks have their own code names for parts of Berlin as well. Istambulis sometimes use the names of the Istanbul neighborhoods for functionally analogous neighborhoods of Berlin: “Caǧaloǧlu” for a section of Kreuzberg that has Turkish printers, publishers, and bookstores; “Bebek” for the elegant Grünewald neighborhood of Berlin; and Kreuzberg itself might be referred to as Turkey or Istanbul; and “Beyoǧlu” serves as the nickname for the main shopping district in Berlin; an old, out-of-commission covered train station, now converted to Turkish shops, advertises itself as “Türkische Bazaar.” An indoor shopping area in Kreuzberg calls itself Misir Çarşisi—Egyptian Market—the Turkish name for the famous spice bazaar in the old part of Istanbul.

The ability to name itself or be named by others is not the only measure of control over the construction of a community or the definition of group boundaries. In the process of creating and recreating itself, the community does so, on the one hand, in implicit opposition to the German context—in defiance of the official definition of Germany as a nonimmigration land, one implicitly unsuitable for pluralism—and, on the other, against pressures to assimilate. By redefining, or renaming parts of the German urban environment, these Turks are staking a claim and appropriating it for themselves—and on their own terms.

The extensive degree of commercial self-sufficiency is another way the migrants have recreated the place for themselves, and in their own terms. Thus, one need not know a word of German to buy insurance; rent a video; buy pide bread, olives, or helal meat; talk to a child minder at a day-care center; deal with a travel agent; and so on. Thus the motivation for many of the migrants to learn German remains minimal. In addition, the prevailing ideology that most everyone shares remains the “myth of return.” For many, if not most, migrants, Kleine Istanbul is not home. They dream of their final return to Turkey, plan for it, save for it, talk of it. And in their summer vacations, they rehearse it, returning for a month or five weeks.

When they arrive in Turkey, however, they are greeted with an ironic appellation; they are called almanyali, “German-like.” The dream of going home proves to be an impossible one, since they are no longer accepted as they once were. In fact, many migrants are relieved to return to Germany after disappointing summer trips. Once back “home” in Germany, they can find sympathetic friends with whom they can complain about this bitter experience, and recall that Germany is so much cleaner, more efficient, and the bureaucrats more honest. After a quarter century in Germany, the idealized dream of Turkey becomes distorted; in its stead, whether they are willing to admit it or not, Germany has begun to come to the conceptual fore.

In this new place, by their own actions and decisions, they are setting new precedents, as they project an agency of their own design, reshaping the Kreuzbergs of Europe into novel and heterogeneous communities. It is in the recognition of an alternately constructed center that the Turks are able to seek positive identifications. Paradoxically, however, this center is located in a peripheral place vis-à-vis Turkey, the original affective orienting center. Thus, the longer the migrants live in the “peripheral center,” the greater its prominence and the more of a competing threat it poses to the traditionally central role occupied by Turkey.

In the 1980s, the Turkish-German “second generation” came into its own as a resident “ethnic” group—albeit in a country that denies this categorical possibility. The likelihood of repatriation is rapidly diminishing for this young Turkish-German population, and the prospect of living their lives as Turkish-Germans in Germany has come to seem more normal to them. Many of them who attend vocational school and university will be productive workers in German society; others, who had the misfortune to be shuttled back and forth between Anatolia and Germany as children, are more marginal and are now bilingual but illiterate young adults. Some have joined Kreuzberg’s growing street gangs and have in that way become involved either in crime or in defending against neofascist Germans who assault Turks, or in both. In a sense, this defending of their turf by Turkish gangs symbolically affirms their right and intention to remain in Germany.

In this “peripheral center,” the Islamic dimension of Turkish life is far from a mere changeover from the migrants’ previous experience. For many, religious behavior and symbols are new or infused with new meaning, whether as a mark of the new ethnicity thrust on them, as a response to the change from rural to urban life, as resistance to German culture, or, for some Alevis, as a claim on that culture. The conceptualization of this space is anything but homogeneous, whether articulated as gurbet or as a potential dar al-Islam (House of Islam). Embedded within Kreuzberg’s variegated social ecology are the seeds from which alternative expressions of Islamic identities may bloom.


1. The information presented here reflects the rapidly changing situation in 1988–90. Some place names, statistics, and so forth, may therefore be out of date. [BACK]

2. Germany’s highly restrictive abortion law, an important part of the Federal Republic’s pro-natalist policy, contrasts sharply with that of the former East Germany. In the “five new states,” eastern German women have been reluctant to accept the imposition of the anti-abortion policy by the west. This has been one of the most highly charged issues surrounding unification. [BACK]

3. Bund-Länder-Kommission, Zur Fortentwicklung einer umfassenden Konzeption der Ausländerbeschäftigungspolitik (Bonn: Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Sozialordnung, 1982). [BACK]

4. This citywide urban renewal project, International Bauaustellung, sought to dislocate as few people as possible and to allow residents to decide the nature of alterations. Thus, poorer residents were able to opt against central heating and to retain their coal ovens, for example, to keep costs down. Stephen Castles et al. discuss “the old assertion that the ‘German Federal Republic is not a country of immigration’ ” and remark that some have suggested ameliorative steps such as granting residence and work permits, monitoring the school attendance of the migrants’ children, and requiring “adequate” dwelling space (Castles et al. 1984: 79). [BACK]

5. In the years since unification, Kreuzberg has undergone further gentrification, and now areas of eastern Berlin have emerged as centers of countercultural bohemian and artistic life, assuming the role once played by Kreuzberg. [BACK]

6. Not all European host countries follow Germany’s example. The Netherlands, for instance, refuses to admit Turkish textbooks and teachers into its school system in favor of its own texts taught by resident Turks. The Dutch claim that the official books and teachers export objectionable political propaganda. West Berlin also commissioned a controversial new set of Turkish textbooks for grades one through eight. They were written and illustrated by Turkish writers and artists residing in West Berlin and contain a great deal of literature and many references that were banned in Turkey. [BACK]

7. Gavur (or alternatively, kâfir) is an extremely pejorative term for non-Muslims, embodying strong moral condemnation and unambiguously asserting the user’s superiority. Technically, it only refers to peoples who are not “of the book”: Jews and Christians are thus not gavur. However, in common usage, it refers to all non-Muslims, and often to Alevis, as well. Pious Muslims used—and use—this word for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the architect of Turkish secularism. [BACK]

8. Non-Muslim minorities live in Turkey as well. There are, for example, ancient communities of Christians—Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Levantine Catholic and Protestant, and Assyrian. A Sephardic Jewish community, with roots in fifteenth-century Spain, lives primarily in Istanbul. In the far east of the country, there are small groups of Kurdish-speaking Yezidis, as well as Shafi Muslims. [BACK]

9. In the late 1980s, cable had begun to arrive in Berlin, and with it a Turkish station. It is likely that this will have an affect on how much video will be viewed in the future. [BACK]

10. Lemon cologne is regularly used in the context of hospitality and more generally when one comes in from outside. A generous amount is squirted into the cupped palms, then rubbed on the hands and face. It is also used in homes and commonly on intercity buses in Turkey, squirted by a young boy hired to assist the bus driver. [BACK]

11. Haydar’s and most Alevi families in Berlin are from eastern Turkey. Many of these Alevis speak a Kurdish language called Zaza (others speak Kurmanci). Alevis from western Anatolia for the most part speak only Turkish and claim only the slightest affiliation with the Kurdish Alevis. [BACK]

12. Although illegal, cems have always taken place in Turkey. Moreover, an Alevi revival has been gaining momentum in recent years. On the national level, Alevi assertiveness can be seen in the massive attendance at events such as the August Haci Bektash festival; a celebration of Pir Sultan Abdal that ended in tragedy, with an arson attack that killed many celebrants; and, finally, several days of rioting in Istanbul in March 1995, provoked by an attack on Alevis. [BACK]

13. For the Sunnis, the phrase “to put out the candle”—mum söndürmek—is an expression that directly refers to this ritual. It is a far from neutral expression and has long gained notorious popular colloquial currency in Turkey, implying the common Sunni belief in the moral inferiority of the Alevi community. Specifically, it is a metaphor referring to the Alevis’ allegedly engaging in scandalous, immoral activities. The Sunnis would have the Alevis committing ritualized incestuous orgies when “the candles go out” at the cem. This is consistent with Sunni logic, which finds joint participation of women and men in cems offensive and sinful. [BACK]

14. In view of the liberalization in Turkey vis-à-vis the Alevi population in recent years, cems are again taking place. [BACK]

15. Some Alevis, cynical about “reactionary, feudal-like” abuses of power alleged against some religious leaders, scorn the dedes and cems. [BACK]

Works Cited

Berlin Senat. 1994. Bericht zur Integrations- und Ausländerpolitik. Berlin: Ausländerbeauftragter des Senats. UC-eLinks

Castles, Stephen, Heather Booth, and Tina Wallace. 1984. Here for Good: Western Europe’s New. Ethnic Minorities. London: Pluto Press. UC-eLinks

Mandel, Ruth. 1988. “We Called for Manpower but People Came Instead: The ‘Foreigner Problem’ and Turkish Guestworkers in West Germany.” Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology. UC-eLinks

——————. 1989. “Turkish Headscarves and the ‘Foreigner Problem’: Constructing Difference through Emblems of Identity.” New German Critique 46 (Winter): 27–46. UC-eLinks

——————. 1989. “Shifting Centres and Emergent Identities: Turkey and Germany in the Lives of Turkish Gastarbeiter.” In Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, ed. D. Eickelman and J. Piscatori, pp. 153–71. London: Routledge. UC-eLinks

West Berlin Municipal Government. 1986. Miteinander leben: Bilanz und Perspektiven. Der Senator für Gesundheit, Soziales und Familie Ausländerbeauftragter, Berlin; and Statistische Berichte, Berliner Statistik, Melderechtlich registrierte Einwohner in Berlin (West), December 31. UC-eLinks

9. Stamping the Earth with the Name of Allah

Zikr and the Sacralizing of Space among British Muslims

Pnina Werbner

Twice a year, winding their way through the drab dilapidated streets of Birmingham, Manchester, or London’s immigrant neighborhoods, processions of Muslim men celebrate anniversaries of death and rebirth. As they march, they chant the zikr, the remembrance of God. This chanting not only purifies their hearts and souls, but also sacralizes and “Islamizes” the very earth, the buildings, the streets and neighborhoods through which they march.

The two events celebrate Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, the anniversary of both the Prophet’s birth and death, and the Urs, the anniversary of a Sufi saint’s death and his final unification with the Prophet and God. The Urs starts with a julus (procession) and culminates in a du‘a, or supplicatory prayer, delivered on behalf of the whole community of worshippers. Here I am concerned mainly with the significance of the procession, as movement in and through space, and the performance of zikr as part of the procession.

Urs: Midday, Birmingham, May 1989

We arrive from Manchester, a coachload of men, a minibus of women, a few private cars. The men congregate at the gates of a park, not far from the Dar-ul-Uloom, Birmingham, the religious center of Sufi Abdullah, who is head of a Naqshbandi regional cult in Britain. He is the leading deputy, or khalifa, of Pir Hazrat Shah, known throughout Pakistan as Zindapir, the “Living Pir.” Zindapir in turn is the most illustrious disciple and deputy of Hazrat Muhammad Qasim, Baba Qasim, a renowned saint of the Naqshbandi order who arrived from Afghanistan and established his lodge headquarters, Mohara Sharif, in the Muree hills in the late nineteenth century. The anniversary of Baba Qasim’s death (in 1943) is being celebrated today. Zindapir founded his own lodge, known as Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif, in 1951, in the barren and lonely Kohat hills, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. He has built it up, during the past forty years, into a vast regional cult focused on the lodge headquarters in Kohat, and stretching from Karachi in the south to Abbotabad in the north, and from Lahore in the east to Birmingham and Manchester in the far west.


The men congregate at the entrance to the park. Venerable elderly men with graying beards and turbans, energetic young men, teenage boys, and little children, all wearing white traditional Pakistani clothing and green caps (fig. 31). They come from all over Britain, as well as from Birmingham itself. As in other processions described in this volume (Slyomovics, Schubel), participants carry banners with written texts. In this case, each group carries a green or black banner inscribed with golden Islamic calligraphy, usually with the kalimah (“God is one and Muhammad is his Prophet”) or other verses from the Qur’an. Leading the procession are several cars elaborately decorated with green, gold, and red tinsel, carrying Islamic insignia on a green background. There is a palanquin of cloth on the roof of one of the cars. Another car carries a loudspeaker, to the blare of which the assembled men respond:

“Nara-i takbir” [“Say: He is Greatest”].

Response: “Allahu akbar” [“God is Greatest”].

“Nara-i risalat” [“Say: Prophethood”].

Response: “Ya Rasul allah” [“O Prophet of God”].

“Zindapir” [“The Living Saint”]!

Response: “Zindabad” [“Live forever”]!

“Mera pir” [“My Saint”].

Response: “Zindabad!”

“Tera pir” [“Your Saint”].

Response: “Zindabad!”

“Islam zindabad” [“Islam live forever”].

Response: “Zindabad!”

“Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif” [“The Lodge Ghamkol Sharif” (Zindapir’s headquarters)].

Response: “Zindabad!”

Leading the procession is a group of some seven or eight khalifas, deputies of Zindapir and of Sufi Abdullah, venerable sages with flowing beards. Each khalifa wears a black robe, a juba, a gift from the shaikh in Pakistan, over a new white cotton robe. Heading the procession is Sufi Abdullah himself, one of the most prominent Sufi saints in Britain today. He is a giant of a man, his head held high, his massive white beard covering his face. It is the face of a man who has known the heavy toil of twenty-five years’ work in the iron foundries of the Midlands. He carries a long cane and strides ahead of the procession, looking for all the world like a latter-day Moses, a biblical shepherd leading his flock.

Figure 31. Sufi Abdullah and other khalifas leading the procession on Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, Birmingham, England, 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
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It is time to start. I follow the procession in my car, accompanied by the women who have come with me from Manchester, and who are as keen as I am to witness the march (in which women do not participate). In front of the procession and flanking it on either side are English policemen who accompany the march, redirecting the traffic and clearing the way ahead of the marchers. We move past the Dar-ul-Uloom and continue through Small Heath and Sparkbrook toward the Birmingham Central Jamia Mosque. As the men march they recite the zikr. Melodiously, “La-ilaha-il-Allah,” (“Allah is God”) or, more stridently, “Allah-Hu, Allah-Hu” (“God is present”). Now and then the chanting is interrupted by the same loud, high-pitched calls of the loudspeakers on the cars, to which the marchers respond with answering refrains.

The men march through the streets of Birmingham, through Asian commercial areas, shabby, run-down but teaming with life (fig. 32). Grocery stores advertising ritually slaughtered halal meat, their vegetables and fruit piled high outside on the pavements, sari and clothes stores stocked with shining silks and colorful synthetics, Asian traditional jewelry stores with their delicately designed gold earrings and necklaces, Asian sweet shops with their sweets piled high in perfect conical towers, Muslim banks, travel agents, restaurants and takeaways. Aromas of cumin, cloves, and cinnamon follow us as the men turn the corner and march into a residential area, tall three-story terrace houses overlooking narrow streets. Curious bystanders stare at us as we pass, English residents and shoppers, Pakistani women carrying their babies, young men idling on the sidewalk. Now we move into a second commercial area. Then, once again, back to terrace-lined neighborhoods. The procession itself extends for some half a mile, several hundred men of all ages marching along, three or four abreast. It is a three-mile walk. Finally, over the crest of the hill, we see the Central Birmingham Mosque. Set somewhat apart from other buildings, flanked by a busy thoroughfare, its minarets beckon the tired marchers. We reach the mosque, the march is over. The women are waiting at the mosque together with the cooks of the langar, the ritually prepared and blessed food offered freely to all those attending the Urs. It is food cooked in the name of God by pure men who perform zikr as they cook; it is tabarruk, blessed. Like all actions at the Urs—the procession, the prayers, the praises of the Prophet, the reading of the Qur’an—the giving of food is a source of merit, sawab.

Figure 32. The Urs procession, displaying written texts, Birmingham, England, 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
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The traders have also arrived and have set up their stalls in the courtyard, displaying a colorful variety of wares: bottles of scent from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, cassettes of famous devotional singers (qawwals), recorded khutbas (sermons) of venerable Muslim sages, hagiographies of saints and other books in Urdu and Arabic, pictures of famous saints, Qur’anic and Sufi calligraphy in bold gold lettering, framed in golden frames and ready for hanging in the terrace houses we have just passed. There are food stalls selling tea and bottled drinks. The traders are there for the profit; they need not be followers of Sufi saints, although many are. They come twice a year, on the Urs and Eid-Milad-un-Nabi.

At the steps to the mosque, the lord mayor of the City of Birmingham awaits, together with several Muslim city councilors and the Pakistani vice-consul, who is based in Birmingham. The end of the julus is also an occasion for the leaders of the order to honor local notables and public figures, who, in turn, dignify the festivities with their presence. Despite its cultural and religious specificity, the celebration thus allows for the creation of a shared institutional space where Muslims and non-Muslims can assert common public values. The presence of the lord mayor signals the order’s identification with civic institutions and its interest in cooperating with them. Indeed, the chairman of the order’s management committee is closely tied to the Labour Party in the city, and the order has been a recipient of a major grant to build a community center on its premises.

The Maulvi opens the proceedings with a prayer, followed by the Pakistani chairman of Sufi Abdullah’s Dar-ul-Uloom Committee, a jovial, blue-eyed, spectacled accountant, who makes the opening statement. He thanks the guests for having come on the procession, despite arriving home late last night after participating in an anti-Rushdie demonstration in London the previous day. His opening speech is followed by short speeches by the lord mayor, the vice-consul, and two councilors. Finally, the pir stands up and raises his hand in du‘a, supplicatory prayer. The congregation below the crowded steps raise their hands silently as he prays. This is the first supplication, which seals the julus and opens the mosque proceedings. The second and culminating du‘a late tonight will seal the Urs as a whole. That second prayer would be attended, I was told, not only by the living congregation present at the Urs but by the living souls of all those auliya, saints, who have reached and merged with God and the Prophet, including Hazrat Muhammad Qasim, the departed saint in whose name the Urs is being held.

Urs: Ghamkol Sharif, Kohat, Pakistan, October 1989

Preparations for the Urs have been going on for several weeks. As the time of the Urs approaches, more and more murids (disciples) of the shaikh arrive to help with voluntary labor. The lodge nestles in the valley, climbing the slope of a hill, surrounded by hills on all sides, a series of stone buildings with internal courtyards, walled enclosures, walled orchards of apples, oranges, and lemons, well-tended vegetable gardens, and cattle and goat pens. Surrounding it is a perimeter wall, running along the slopes of the hills, protecting the lodge from the leopards that come down from the mountains during the winter snows. It is a lovely, prosperous, tranquil scene. The courtyards of the houses and hospices are surrounded by green lawns and bordered with flower beds and shady trees. The beautiful mosque is elaborately decorated in white, green, and dark red, its three domes and delicate minarets set against the blue skies and the hills beyond. Two fountains of pure water splash into pools on either side of the entrance to the vast open courtyard, shaded by a giant banyan tree. All is quiet apart from the sound of zikr echoing in the mountains and the splashing of the water fountains. Because of the beauty and the abundance, visitors and Zindapir himself have associated Ghamkol Sharif with paradise (P. Werbner 1990b: 271–72).

It was not always thus. When the shaikh arrived here in 1951, there were only the bare mountains. The darbar contains several key landmarks of the pir’s settlement in this “jungle” (wilderness). Of these, one is the cave in which the pir first settled, sent by the Prophet, where he spent three days and three nights without eating or drinking. Then God said to him: “I have not sent you here to close yourself up inside a cave. Go out and meet the people.” This cave, now just beyond the perimeter wall, has been preserved as it was, apart from a lone electric bulb lighting the interior. It has become something of a shrine, and pilgrims to the lodge climb the hill and leave pledges of their requests in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the thornbushes outside the cave. From here, the pilgrim has a perfect view of the lodge and the valley below.

A second landmark is another cave at the heart of the lodge, which towers above the mosque and all the other buildings on the slope of the hill. The cave is reached by a steep staircase and has been converted into a windowless room. Its floor is covered with Persian carpets and its whitewashed walls are decorated with pictures of the Ka‘ba in Mecca and a chart of the spiritual genealogy of Sufi saints leading to Zindapir. Outside this cave is the rock on which the shaikh sat and preached to his disciples for many years before the mosque was built.

There were no roads, no orchards, no cattle, no electricity, at that time. Water was carried several miles from a spring on the other side of the hills on donkeys. Before the shaikh came, the area was the abode of a famous dacoit from the fierce Kabaili tribes that live beyond the hills. He was said to have robbed the British and stored his booty in one of the caves in the valley.

It has taken almost four decades to build the lodge to its present state of perfection. Virtually all of the labor that went into this building has been voluntary. Even the electricity and the digging of the well were provided by the government free of charge. They were not asked for, they were simply given. But a good deal of the building work, the construction, the extension of water pipes, electricity, and sewage lines, the building and decoration of the mosque, the planting of orchards—all these have been achieved gradually, year by year, during the weeks preceding the annual Urs.

The khalifa who runs these arrangements has taken over the job from his father before him. He is also the darban, the gatekeeper of the shaikh, who handles the guests and decides how long they will spend with him. He carries the keys to all the locked buildings, storehouses, and gardens, supervises the preparation of the langar and meals for the guests and the feeding of people during the Urs, and, indeed, all the preparations for the Urs.

The murids arrive in groups, many of the helpers about three weeks before the Urs. There is a good deal of building going on, and rocks are being broken with sledgehammers by hand and carried in baskets on the workers’ heads from the rocky hillsides. This year the murids are in the process of building a watchtower on the periphery to guard the lodge. The khalifa supervising the building work is an ex-army man from Jhelum District. Another khalifa, from Faislabad and also an ex-army man, is supervising the decoration of the lodge buildings and hillsides with elaborate colored lights and neon signs, as well as the various extensions needed for the new buildings. Some of the lighting is already in place from Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, which was celebrated last week. There are chains of moving flashing colored lights, brightly lit colored signs, spinning neon spoke wheels and the Arabic inscription “Allah-Hu” extending across the hillside. Most spectacular, perhaps, is the decoration of the mosque, each of the three domes being lit with chains of light, which spin around it. Teams are setting up broad metal chapati grills and giant tandur pits for baking nan, clearing the ground of rocks and stones for sleeping spaces, connecting new electricity and water lines, extending sewage lines and building sumps, and clearing areas for the coaches carrying the pilgrims. The mosque is being cleaned and redecorated, and the elaborately designed iron gates are being repainted with blue and red flowers by a local “artist,” another murid. One of the fountain pools flagging the entrance to the mosque is being whitewashed.

People at the lodge perform zikr at all times of the day and night. Even as they work, they perform the zikr. Some, especially the khalifas supervising the arrangements, have not slept for many nights, yet still they continue with this labor of love, performing the zikr as they work (cf. Lings 1971: 18–19, on North Africa). The hills echo with the melodic sound of “La-ilaha-il-Allah,” “La-ilaha-il-Allah.” The shaikh comes out to inspect the work’s progress, accompanied by a group of khalifas. Nothing happens in the lodge without his knowledge. He is the ultimate planner and decision maker.

We meet two young men from Birmingham, here to attend the Urs. They have many wonderful tales of the karamat, miracles, associated with the shaikh. One tells a story about the zikr:

The people here do zikr all the time. Even when they are working they do zikr. When I came here the first time, I insisted that I wanted to do some work. So they gave me an area to clean. I was cleaning one of the rooms when I heard someone doing zikr in one of the other rooms. But when I looked into that room there was no one there. But still I kept hearing the zikr. Then I looked up and saw that there was a pigeon sitting on the edge of the roof doing zikr. I had heard that the pigeons do zikr here.

The house we are staying in, a two-room house with a bathroom, running water, and sewage line surrounded by a walled garden, was built last year for the English Pakistani pilgrims led by Sufi Abdullah who attended the Urs as a group. The house is beautifully furnished, with a three-piece suite, coffee tables, Persian carpets, and European beds—for this is, after all, what British Pakistanis have come to expect as normal, and the shaikh provides only the best in hospitality for his guests.

The preparations continue. More and more murids arrive and join the work, speaking of their great love of the shaikh, of his devotion, his purity, his dedication. He never sleeps and barely eats; all he does is pray day and night and devote his life to God. The cooking areas are being prepared with great pots, towers of utensils, and wood piled high. Another guardroom is being built outside the women’s quarters. Canvases are extended over the whole area, so the women are screened from onlookers on the hills. The organizers rush around madly, making sure everything is working. People are arriving in buses and trucks. Some carry banners, which they place around the pir’s courtyard, and they put banners on the colorful tents they set up too. Decorated in green, white, and red, the tents are secured on tall bamboo stakes, with wide gaps between the walls and the roofs. On the ground, they lay thin rugs. Although it is October, it is very hot in the sun, and it is getting very dusty.

Everywhere zikr is being sung. People sing zikr on the trucks when they arrive, sometimes fast—“Allah-Hu,” “Allah-Hu”—sometimes slow and melodious—“La-ilaha-il-Allah,” “La-ilaha-il-Allah.” What they sing also depends on the driving speed or the work tempo. From time to time, other prayers are blared over the sound system, but the sermons have not started in earnest yet.

The groups continue to arrive. They come from all over Pakistan. Some have been traveling for forty-eight hours, a thousand miles. A city of tents arises in the arid valley inhabited by 60,000–100,000 men, women, and children, an enormous crowd brought in by convoys (qafilahs) from every big town in Pakistan and many of its villages. All have come to attend the Urs and receive the pir’s blessings; they will share in his final du‘a (fig. 33). There are no processions. They have traveled great distances in the name of Allah, traversing the length and breadth of Pakistan, singing zikr all the way.

Figure 33. The final du‘a at the Urs at Ghamkol Sharif, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, October 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
[Full Size]

Hijra and the Sacralizing of Space

Sufism is conceived of as a journey along a path (suluk) leading toward God. The central ritual practice on this journey is zikr, the remembrance of God. Those who continuously practice zikr find their lower selves (nafs) and their very bodies transformed. A young khalifa of Sufi Abdullah’s, alluding to complex Naqshandi cosmological theories, explained to me:

There are seven points of energy in our body through which the spiritual power of Allah enters the body. If you do zikr correctly, and in my case it didn’t take long, then your heart starts doing zikr all the time, every moment of the day and night, even when a person is doing other things. Like now, when I’m talking to you.

This merging of body and cosmos are the means of purifying and transcending the vital self, which is recovered as the eternal soul (see also Subhan 1960: 61–71).

But Sufi Islam is not only a journey within the body and person, conceived of as a journey toward God. It is also a journey in space. The sacralizing of space is not, it must be stressed, simply a coincidental feature of Sufi cultic practices. It is a central, essential aspect of Sufi cosmology and of Sufism as a missionizing, purificatory cult. Beyond the transformation of the person, Sufism is a movement in space that Islamizes the universe and transforms it into the space of Allah. This journey or migration (hijra), which evokes the migration of the Prophet to Madina, empowers a saint, just as it empowers the space through which he travels and the place where he establishes his lodge.

The journey is twofold: on the one hand, into the wilderness, the “jungle,” beyond human habitation, a place of capricious jinns and dangerous outlaws, of predatory nature beyond civilization; on the other hand, toward the land of infidels, kufristan, of idolaters, hypocrites, backsliders—the “unbelievers.” It is these dangerous journeys that endow a Muslim saint with his charisma. He who stays home and grows fat on the land may be rich and powerful; he will never be the founder of a Sufi regional cult, he will never be revered and worshipped as one of God’s chosen friends. It is the divine transformation in space that is the ultimate proof of the divine transformation of the person.

About a week after the Urs in Birmingham, Sufi Abdullah came to Manchester to celebrate the gyarvi sharif[1] with the congregation at the Dar-ul-Uloom there. After the celebration and the shaikh’s final du‘a, he received supplicants with various problems and ailments seeking his advice and blessings. I went in to see the pir with several other women. When my turn came, we talked first of the Urs and Islam and he turned to me and added:

You ask about the julus. It is written in the Qur’an [and here he quoted a qura’nic verse in Arabic] that you must do zikr [remember God] when you are standing, when you are walking, when you are lying down. According to the Hadith, when you walk along saying zikr, then everything, including people and objects and things of nature, will be your witness on the Day of Judgement that you have performed zikr, yes, even the stones and buildings.

Werbner: “Even the earth?”

Yes, it is said in the Hadith that once you have said zikr stamping on the earth, the earth will wait for you to come back again.

Sufi Abdullah came to England in 1962. He had known Zindapir when he was still in the army, when he first became a pir, and he had shared with him some of the arduous experiences of the wilderness of the Kohat hills during his long leaves from the army. In the late 1950s, there were many among the shaikh’s disciples, especially ex-soldiers, who were going to England to seek their fortunes. It is said by some that Sufi Abdullah approached the shaikh and asked him if he could go to England. Reluctantly, the shaikh agreed to part with him, and appointed him to be his first khalifa in England. According to a British Pakistani visitor to the Urs in Ghamkol Sharif, however, when it came to actually leaving his shaikh, Sufi Abdullah had “cried and wanted to stay, but the shaikh told him he must go.”

Zindapir told me that he had sent Sufi Abdullah to England because the people there, the Pakistani labor migrants, did not even know how to pray, they did not celebrate Eid, they did not fast on Ramzan, they did not perform the zikr, they had forgotten Islam. They needed a spiritual guide to lead them on the path of Allah. Before Sufi Abdullah left, Zindapir made him his khalifa. He was one of his earliest khalifas and most trusted companions.

One of the speakers at the Urs in Birmingham talked of this mission fulfilled by Sufi Abdullah and men like him:

It is all because of those God-loving people who started the movement to raise the religious consciousness in you [the people present at the Birmingham mosque gathering] years ago, and enabled you to raise the flags of Islam, not only in the U.K. but all over the world, and especially in kufristan [the land of the infidels] of Europe.

Whether it is to the land of infidels or into the wilderness, the saint’s journey is a lonely journey, filled with hardship. It constitutes the ultimate ordeal. This is why the followers of an “original” saint like Zindapir or Sufi Abdullah speak somewhat dismissively of the gaddi nashin, the descendants of illustrious founding saints and guardians of shrines, whose charisma is derivatory and who are seen to benefit materially from the cults their glorified ancestors founded. They respect them greatly, but they are not “real” saints. A true friend of God is a man who endures incredible hardship. Zindapir told me:

When I first came here, the land was barren and hostile, and it had never witnessed the name of Allah. Yet look at it today, a green and pleasant land [abad—cultivated, populated], all owing to the faith in Allah of one man. No one had ever worshipped here since the creation of the world, it was a wild and dangerous place, a place of lions (my own son saw a lion). Now the earth is richer in religion than many other places. One man is the cause of it all. One man came here and did zikr, and this place became a place of habitation.

In his final sermon on the last day of the Urs, Zindapir elaborated on the transformation of the wilderness and especially on Allah’s favor to the graves of the pious. One of the guest speakers at the Urs in Ghamkol Sharif stressed this relation between the love of God and the sacralizing of space in the course of his sermon:

When a man starts loving Rasul-i Pak [the Pure Messenger, Muhammad] then everything starts loving him. Every part of the universe—the water, the flowers, the morning dawn, the moon, the roses, the green plants—everything starts loving that man. And this is the love of Rasul-i Pak, which has given beauty to the flowers and beauty to the whole of the world. And whatever is present here is due to the love of Rasul-i Pak and the love of Allah.

The Sufi Saint as Tamer of the Wilderness

Zindapir and other speakers at the Urs repeatedly evoked the trope of the Sufi saint as tamer of the wilderness, a trope related closely to another, that of the Sufi saint as bringer of natural fertility. Zindapir’s story is of the successful overpowering by the Sufi saint of the devil, on the one hand, and of wild animals, wild men and the bare wilderness itself, on the other. It is the mastery of the soul’s own lower self (nafs) and its wild, animal-like passions, its desires and temptations. The way to the valley of the cave is thus a concrete embodiment of the battle of the nafs, the inner jihad (see Schimmel 1975: 4, 98, 119; Rao 1990: 19; Nicholson 1989: 108–9; and Attar 1990: 158, 164, 273).[2] The jihad is replicated externally in wilderness settings (see, e.g., Nizami 1955: 36, 114). The control of nature is an important feature of a Sufi saint’s claim to charisma.

The centrality of a Sufi saint’s power over the earth and nature is explicitly personified in Sufi theosophy by the mystical rank of abdal, part of the esoteric set of beliefs regarding the ranked community of saints. According to this set of beliefs, there are at any one time forty living saints in the world who are abdals. These saints, I was told, make the grass grow, give food to birds, and ensure the fertility of the earth (see also Nicholson 1989: 123–24).

Just as saints are internally ranked, as well as being intrinsically superior to ordinary human beings, so, too, places in Sufism are ranked. Their ranking corresponds to the ranking of the saints who are alive or are buried there. Thus another speaker, a well-known maulvi, speaking in Urdu, told the congregation:

[To] the people who are resident in Pakistan and the friends who have come from outside Pakistan: I would like to say clearly that nothing in the universe is equal. Everything has its own status and honor.…Even the piece of land where we are sitting now has different honors. For example, not every peak of a mountain is the peak of Tur [Mt. Sinai]. And not every piece of land is the land of Madinah Sharif. And not all stones have been honored to become the House of Allah, the Ka‘ba [in Mecca]. And not every domed mosque is Al Aqsa [the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem]. And not all hills could be the hills of Ghamkol Sharif. People may wonder why the people of Pakistan and people from outside Pakistan have come here after obtaining visas and spending a great deal of money? What have they traveled so far for? All the speeches have been made. What are they waiting for? I know that they have all come here only to share in the du‘a of Khawaja Zindapir…wherever Khawaja Zindapir has placed his foot on the earth, he has turned it into a garden and flower bed.…When love makes its place in the heart of man, the world is changed altogether.

…I request all of you to place your hearts at the feet of Muhammad Mustafa (P.B.U.H.) so that they be cleaned of sins and desires. Because when my Lord, the sacred Prophet, came on this earth and placed his feet here, the whole land was declared a pure and orderly place—East and West were cleansed [purified]. We, the Muslims, have been allowed in the absence of water to do ablution with sand or dried mud. Before the coming of the Prophet, no person was allowed to do his ablutions with sand or mud and no one was allowed to pray on the earth anywhere they chose. When my Lord Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) put his sacred feet on the earth, the earth was declared a pure place and we were allowed to say our prayers wherever we liked, and to do our ablutions with sand and dry mud. How was this permission given? It is clearly written in the Qur’an: You may do ablution with dry mud. This earth became pure, not because we cleaned it with soap but because of its relation with the feet of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.)

…And, O audience, if the prayer of a person is accepted because of his contact with the dust that touched the feet of Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) I say to you that all the murids who have come to Ghamkol Sharif should come once a year, if you could, you should come daily, because in the hijra of Ghamkol Sharif there is a lover of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Spatial Dimensions of Sufi Muslim Individual Identity

The spirituality of a Sufi pir is embodied in the space he has sacralized. His divine blessing purifies his spatial dominion and endows it with sanctity. For Sufi Muslims in Britain who are followers of Sufi Abdullah, Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif is the center of their symbolic universe. The separation and distance between Kohat and Birmingham or Manchester are overcome in their symbolic imagination to create a single, unitary cosmic order. As Muslims and “brother-disciples” (pir-bhai) within a single regional cult, they are united in their expression of love for two men: Sufi Abdullah in Britain and Zindapir in Pakistan. Their religious identity as Muslims and Sufis is particularized through this love and loyalty and revitalized periodically through pilgrimage and celebration at the spaces these holy men have sacralized by their religious activity.

I stress that they are members of a single “regional cult” rather than simply of a Sufi “order” (R. Werbner 1977: ix). The distinction is important. The Naqshbandi order stretches from Iraq and Turkey in the west through Persia and Afghanistan to the whole of South Asia. It is only in theory a unitary organization. As a distinct order, it recognizes slight variations in Sufi mystical practice on the path toward unification with the Prophet and God. The regional cult built up by Zindapir is, by contrast, an active organization with a known hierarchy of sacred centers and subcenters and recognized chains of authority. It is a known universe of specific communities linked together in devotion to a single man.[3] For disciples living in Britain, their various communities are united with all the other communities centered on Ghamkol Sharif, even though the majority of these communities are, of course, located in Pakistan itself. Regional cults are not contiguous, spatially bounded territorial organizations; they are spatially discontinuous, interpenetrating organizations linked together through a common connection to ritually sacred centers and subcenters (see R. Werbner 1989: 245–98).

The great regional cults in Pakistan today were founded recently (see Gilmartin 1979; Hafeez ur-Rehman 1979), and some of today’s vicegerents will ultimately found new centers, which in time may become the foci of viable new cults, whose moral and religious excellence may outshine the tired inheritors of present-day shrines. It is, above all, the “living pirs,” those who venture beyond the established order, even as far as Britain, who endow Sufi Islam with its continued vitality.

Julus and Hijra

I have argued that the charisma of a holy man is objectified, and thus proved, through its inscription in space. The saint has inscribed his charisma on the new place he has founded, and this very act of inscription constitutes the ultimate proof that he is, indeed, a saint. But there is a further question that needs to be asked if we are to understand the significance of movement through space for British Pakistanis: why is it that for these immigrants, the holding of the julus in Britain seems to represent a radical departure from previous practices, a new movement imbued with deep subjective experiential significance?

To answer this question we need to recognize that the julus embraces a plurality of meaningful acts.[4] It is, of course, above all a religious act, in which the name of Allah is ritually inscribed in the public spaces Muslims march along. Through the chanting of zikr, British Pakistanis Islamize the urban places where they have settled.

Historically, the holding of Muslim public processions can be seen as constituting a radical shift in the terms in which Muslim immigrants have come to present and represent themselves to the wider society. During the initial phases of migration, the only public religious signs of an Islamic presence in Britain were the stores and mosques immigrants built or purchased. Outside mosques, ritual and religious activities took place in the inner spaces of homes, which were sacralized through repeated domestic Eid and communal Qur’an reading rituals (see P. Werbner 1990a, chs. 4 and 5; Qureshi, this volume). Sacred Islamic spaces were thus confined within fortresses of privacy, whether mosques or homes, and these fortresses protected immigrants from external hostility (McCloud, this volume). When Sufi Abdullah first held a julus in Birmingham around 1970, he was warned that such an assertion of Islamic presence might expose marchers to stone throwing and other attacks. Sufi Abdullah, not a man easily intimidated, went ahead with the procession anyway. Over the years, it has sometimes been the target of attacks, mainly verbal, from outsiders, but the organizers of the processions take pride in the fact that these events have never become the scene of trouble or violence.

Marching through immigrant neighborhoods, the processions not only inscribe the name of Allah on the very spaces they cover—they also call Muslims back to the faith. The julus is, as one khalifa told me, above all an act of tabligh, of publicly saying to other Muslims, Look at us: we are proud of being Muslims, we are willing to parade our Muslimness openly in the streets, we believe that Islam is the last and best religion, containing the true message of God, the whole message, including even its hidden truths; and we are not afraid to show our pride in our religion openly and publicly. But, he explained, we are also making clear that if you want to be a good Muslim, you have to choose; you can’t be a part-time Muslim.

The processions specifically assert the legitimacy of a particular Islamic approach—that focused on saints and their shrines—which has come under attack from other reformist movements in South Asia. In Britain, they represent an act of assertion in a struggle between different Islamic approaches, all competing for local hegemony. They also attest to the ascendancy of a particular Sufi regional cult in a city. In Birmingham, Sufi Abdullah holds the processions, to which all the other Sufi orders are invited. In Manchester, the procession was, until 1991, dominated by members of the Qadri order, whose khalifa controlled the central mosque.

As in Toronto and New York, processions literally address non-Muslims as well (cf. Schubel, Slyomovics, this volume). Although the banners carried in the Birmingham processions I observed were in Urdu and Arabic and inscribed mainly with verses from the Qur’an, in Manchester in 1990, by contrast, banners in English made implicit references to the Rushdie affair, demanding a change in the blasphemy laws. Other banners in English declared that Islam was a religion of peace, implicitly referring to the association in the public mind of Muslims with violence, which the Rushdie affair generated. The banners in English are thus part of the missionizing activity of Muslims in Britain. They appeal to an English audience of potential converts—people who feel that Christianity or secularism have somehow failed them, and who are seeking a new religious truth. Whatever the nature of the procession itself, in both cities, the meetings held either before or after the procession included invited English dignitaries and officials, and the speeches made in them referred openly to the current political concerns of Muslims in Britain (for a detailed analysis, see Werbner, forthcoming).

The processions are open to anyone. Many of those who march are members of the Muslim underprivileged or working class. By marching, they assert their pride in Islam, their self-confidence and power. Whether explicit or implicit, once people have marched openly in a place, they have crossed an ontological barrier. They have shown that they are willing to expose themselves and their bodies to possible outside ridicule for the sake of their faith. Once they have organized a peaceful procession, they know they are capable of organizing a peaceful protest. Such processions can thus be seen as precursors to more overt (democratic) political protest. Marching through the streets of a British city, then, is in many different kinds of way an assertion of power and confidence. This is, I think, why the holding of the processions seems to have a deep subjective experiential significance for those who participate in them.

Finally, and most simply, the julus is an expression of the rights of minorities to celebrate their culture and religion in the public domain within a multicultural, multifaith, multiracial society. Seen thus, Muslim processions do not differ significantly from Chinese New Year lion dances, public Diwali celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day processions, or Caribbean carnivals. They are part of a joyous and yet unambiguous assertion of cultural diversity, of an entitlement to tolerance and mutual respect in contemporary Britain. Through such public festivals and celebrations, immigrants make territorial claims in their adopted cities, and ethnic groups assert their equal cultural claims within the society.


This essay has shown the importance of space in Sufi practices generally. It has also demonstrated that as Pakistani Muslim migrants have migrated beyond the boundaries of their natal countries to create Muslim communities in the West, they have also created fertile ground for new Sufi cult centers. In Britain, all saints are “living” saints. Through hijra they have become the original founders of a new order in an alien land. In marching through the shabby streets of Britain’s decaying inner cities, they glorify Islam and stamp the earth with the name of God. If, like Sufi Abdullah, they are powerful vicegerents of a great saint, they retain their link to the cult center, they pay homage to it, go on pilgrimage to visit it, marvel at its beauty, and share in the powerful godliness of its keeper.

Once a year, pilgrims from Britain led by Sufi Abdullah meet pilgrims from Pakistan, led by Zindapir, in Mecca on hajj. Zindapir provides free food to all needy pilgrims on the hajj, and it is Sufi Abdullah’s responsibility to organize the langar, the cooking and distribution of the food. The two men, friends and companions of old, who have been separated for a quarter of a century by five thousand miles of land and sea, thus meet annually at the sacred center of Islam, part of what has become, through the process of migration, a global sacred network generated by a belief in and love of one man, following a divinely ordained mystical path.


This paper is based on research on Sufi cults in Pakistan and their extension into Britain conducted during 1987–91. I wish to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (U.K.) and the Leverhelme Trust for their generous support. A version of this chapter appeared in Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 2, and I would like to thank the journal for permission to republish parts of the article in the present volume. I am deeply indebted to Zindapir, Sufi Abdullah, and all their murids in Manchester, Birmingham, and Ghamkol Sharif for their generosity and interest in the research. I also owe special thanks to Bashir Muhammad, who guided me patiently and selflessly along the path to knowledge, to Rashid Amin, and to Nyla Ahmed, my assistant in Britain, whose support and understanding of Islam have been invaluable. The paper was presented at the SSRC conference on Spatial Expressions of Muslim Identity in the West at the Harvard Middle East Center in November 1990; at the Oxford History Seminar; and at the Department of Anthropology, Queen’s University, Belfast. I would like to thank Judith Brown, Terence Ranger, Hastings Donnan, and the other participants for their perceptive comments. I am also particularly grateful to Barbara Metcalf for her very stimulating editorial comments on an earlier version of this text.

1. This is the Urs of Shaikh Abdul ul-Qadir-Gilani, the great saint of Baghdad (d. 1166). [BACK]

2. Legends of North African saints’ miracles also evoke the mastery of the wilderness. See Goldziher 1971: 270; and see also Eickelman 1976: 33–34; Meeker 1979: 229–30. [BACK]

3. Trimingham (1971: 67–104) calls such “regional cults” ta’ifa, but the name does not appear to be commonly used by Pakistanis. [BACK]

4. The cultural and political significance of public processions varies widely. The display of dominance in official state processions may be contrasted with potentially explosive religious-communal processions, such as those in Northern Ireland. There are pilgrimage processions (see, e.g., Sallnow 1987), annual ritual processions (see Fuller 1980), English miners’ processions, memorial processions, and processions that form part of broader rituals of revitalization, such as carnival processions before Lent. Although all processions may be said to constitute existential displays of power and territorial occupation/demarcation, their significance differs widely in different cultures and localities, and at different historical moments. [BACK]

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10. Karbala as Sacred Space among North American Shi‘a

“Every Day Is Ashura, Everywhere Is Karbala”

Vernon James Schubel

Karbala holds a place of central importance in the piety of Shi‘i Muslims. As the place where the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved grandson Husain was martyred in 680 C.E., Karbala is simultaneously the site of a particular historical tragedy and the location for a metahistorical cosmic drama of universal significance. In the United States and Canada, the ritual evocation of Karbala helps Shi‘i Muslims construct a unique and meaningful identity in the midst of an “alien” environment. By creating spatial and temporal arenas for the remembrance of Karbala, the Shi‘a consciously adapt and accommodate existing institutions such as lamentation assemblies and processions in ways that allow them to claim space through the expression of central and paradigmatic symbols.

This essay explores the role of Karbala as a “sacred center” for Shi‘i Muslims in the context of a particular North American community. The research was conducted primarily at the Ja‘ffari Islamic Center in Thornhill, Ontario, in July and August 1990.[1] The Ja‘ffari Center is a Shi‘i institution whose buildings are located on a major traffic artery in the Toronto suburbs. It serves the spiritual needs of a large community of Urdu- and Gujarati-speaking Shi‘a, consisting largely of immigrants from East Africa.[2] The community’s members live dispersed throughout the Toronto area. The community is relatively affluent, the majority of its members having successfully made the transition to become suburban residents in the modern Canadian “ethnic quilt” (cf. Qureshi, this volume).

Living as members of a religious minority group is nothing new for the Shi‘a. In most parts of the Muslim world, the Shi‘a constitute a religious minority who live their lives physically surrounded by other communities who reject many of their beliefs and practices. The Shi‘a of the Ja‘ffari Center are also an ethnic, as well as a religious, minority, a situation familiar to the Gujarati Khojas, the majority of members of the center, who migrated from East Africa. They must decide which elements of the cultures of their countries of origin they will preserve. For most, their Shi‘i identity is primary.

The remembrance of the battle of Karbala as a significant historical and religious event is crucial to the way in which Shi‘i Muslims maintain their unique identity within the larger ummah. The importation of rituals for the remembrance of Karbala has also facilitated the community’s adaptation to the Canadian environment. The remembrance and re-creation of Karbala allows the Shi‘i community to claim space in North America that is both North American and Islamic: they thus Islamize elements of North American culture while creatively adapting Islam to the North American environment.

The Nature of Shi‘i Piety

Shi‘i piety is firmly oriented toward a historically focused spirituality that seeks to understand the divine will through the interpretation of events that took place in human history. Important events in the early history of Islam, such as the battle of Karbala, are understood as “metahistorical,” in that they are seen to transcend and interpenetrate ordinary reality, providing definitive and dramatic models for human conduct and behavior. While this is true to some degree for all Muslims—as well as for Jews and Christians—the Shi‘a place a distinctive emphasis on this aspect of piety, evident in rituals like the one described below.

Shi‘i Islam can be described as the Islam of personal allegiance and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad. As one important Shi‘i thinker in Pakistan explained it to me, whereas both the Sunni and the Shi‘a accept the authority of the Prophet and the Qur’an, the Shi‘a believe that the Qur’an is the Book of God because Muhammad says that it is, and he can never lie; in contrast, the Sunni believe that Muhammad is the Prophet of God because the Qur’an identifies him as such (Waugh et al. 1991; Schubel 1993).[3] Thus, although Sunni Islam emphasizes obedience to the Qur’an as the fundamental basis of Islam, the Shi‘a, who also fully accept the authority of the Qur’an, categorically reject Umar’s statement at the deathbed of the Prophet that “For us the Book is sufficient.” The Shi‘a argue that the Qur’an can only be properly interpreted by Muhammad and his family (Ahl al-bayt), who specifically include the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, his son-in-law ‘Ali, their two sons Hasan and Husain, and, for the Ithna’ashari majority of the Shi‘a, a series of nine more imams (the first three being ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husain), culminating in the hidden twelfth imam, who will eventually return to establish justice in the world. For them, Islam requires allegiance, not only to Muhammad, but also to the twelve imams, to whom God has given divine responsibility for the interpretation of the Islamic revelation.

The Shi‘a also typically claim to be distinguished by their special emphasis on the necessity of love for the Prophet. Muhammad is the beloved of God (Habib Allah). Thus, if one wishes truly to love God, one must also love the Prophet whom God loves; one must further demonstrate that love by expressing love and allegiance for those whom the Prophet loved. This is particularly true of those closest to the Prophet in his own lifetime—Fatima, ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husain. For the Shi‘a, the events of their lives form the ultimate commentary upon the Qur’an.[4] These events carry with them a reality and a meaning that transcends and encompasses all of human and spiritual history.

The most important of these events is undoubtedly the martyrdom of Husain at the battle of Karbala. Vastly outnumbered and cut off from food and water, the last remaining grandson of the Prophet was brutally slain in combat at Karbala, having first watched his close family members killed by the troops of Yazid b. Mu‘awiyah, the man who claimed to be the rightful caliph of Islam. Husain, who as a child had climbed and played upon the back of the Prophet, was decapitated; his body was trampled on the desert floor. The women of his family, the surviving witnesses to the slaughter, were marched in shackles before Caliph Yazid in Damascus. Husain’s head was carried into Damascus on a pole. Given the atrocities committed against the Prophet’s family, from the Shi‘i perspective, the community of Islam divided once and for all at Karbala between those who accepted the necessity of allegiance to the Ahl al-bayt and those who rejected it.

The importance of Karbala for the Shi‘a finds its fullest articulation in numerous rituals that orient the community toward the events that took place there. Indeed, many South Asian cities contain areas called “Karbalas,” in which ritual objects such as ta‘ziyehs (replicas of Husain’s tomb) are buried. Annual commemorations of Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala during the first ten days of Muharram are essential to Shi‘i piety. These include mourning assemblies (majlis-i ‘aza) and processions (julus). Such activities, collectively known as ‘azadari, are occasions for the ritual re-creation of Karbala. Karbala is ritually portable, and South Asian immigrants have carried it with them to the North American environment.

Karbala is linked both to a place and an event. As such, its re-creation involves the transformation of both time and space. The re-creation of the place of Karbala is typically accomplished through the establishment of buildings dedicated to Husain called imambargahs, which are community centers where a number of functions are carried out, including devotional rituals, community education, and the preparation of the dead for burial. The re-creation of sacred time is accomplished by the cyclical commemoration of important events in the lives of the Ahl al-bayt as they appear on the Shi‘i calendar through rituals of zikr (remembrance) and shahadat (witness).[5]

As Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina—an important figure in the community—stated during a majlis in Toronto, the Shi‘a believe that it is incumbent upon Muslims to remember the ayam-i allah (Days of God).[6] For the Shi‘a, of course, these ayam include the days of Karbala. Optimally, the remembrance of Karbala should be integrated into the everyday lives of the Shi‘i community. From the Shi‘i perspective, the whole world continuously participates in Karbala; it is as if the events of Karbala are always taking place just below the surface of ordinary reality. Devotional ritual allows devotees to cut through the veil that separates them from Karbala so that they can actually participate in it. “Every day is Ashura, and everywhere is Karbala,” banners carried in the Muharram processions in downtown Toronto declare.

The ritual re-creation of Karbala creates an environment that in Clifford Geertz’s terms can “establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973). But Shi‘i devotional activities not only, ideally, instill the assurance that the “system of symbols” encountered in Shi‘i ritual is a “uniquely realistic” model of and model for reality, they can also challenge believers to compare the state of their lives and their society with the paradigmatic actions of Husain and his companions at Karbala. Thus encounters with Karbala serve as opportunities for individual and communal reflection. Devotional activities serve not only to reinforce the unique authority of Shi‘i Islam but also to encourage the creative adaptation of the community to changing circumstances.

The Imambargah as “Sacred Space”

Imambargahs in North America serve both to evoke Karbala and to publicly claim space by creating an Islamic presence in the midst of the alien “West.” Imambargahs are tied to Karbala as a sacred place by decorative symbols that draw one’s attention to God, the Prophet, and the Ahl al-bayt. When imambargahs are established in buildings originally designed for other purposes, only the interiors of these buildings are transformed into recognizably Islamic places.

On the other hand, when a community has the opportunity to build its own structure, it must decide to what extent the building will participate in a “Western” aesthetic. In the case of the Ja‘ffari Center, which was built in 1978, an architect was hired with explicit instructions to construct a recognizably Islamic building, and yet one lacking such characteristic features as domes and minarets, which might make it stand out too abruptly from the local architecture (cf. Haider, this volume). The completed building is a remarkable edifice, which is recognizably Islamic and yet part of the Canadian architectural landscape. It represents an Islamization of local architecture that mirrors other attempts by the community to find ways to Islamize the local environment—for example, using English in majlis. Imambargahs are therefore places where an indigenous North American Islamic aesthetic is being created.

The Ja‘ffari Center is situated amidst other religious edifices, including a Chinese Buddhist Temple and a Jewish synagogue—both of which provide extra parking for the center during Muharram. On its main level, the center contains a large hall for majlis, called the Zainabia Hall, and a masjid (mosque). Upstairs are a library and a large room for women with children. Women can participate in majlis from a large room located downstairs.

The centrality of spiritual history and allegiance to the Ahl al-bayt are clearly evident in the architecture and decoration of the building. The very names of the component parts of the structure evoke the presence of the Ahl al-bayt. For example, the majlis hall is named for Husain’s sister Zainab. This is significant, since the hall is used for the purpose of bearing witness to the events of Karbala just as Zainab, as a survivor of Karbala, bore witness to the generation of Muslims immediately following those events. A sign notes that the foundation stone was laid by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina on the day of Ghadir Khumm, which commemorates Muhammad’s designation of ‘Ali as his mawla, which may be considered the founding of Shi‘ism itself.

The importance of sacred names and words is evident throughout the building. The majlis hall is flanked on one wall by ten glassed-in arches. The rear wall contains four more—two each on either side of a large arch-shaped window—for a total of fourteen. When I first saw the structure in 1982, these arches held bare glass. Within the past few years, stained glass bearing the word “Allah” in Arabic script and one of the names of the fourteen masumin (those protected from error)—Muhammad, Fatima, and the twelve imams—has been installed at the top of each arch. This hall is laid out towards the qiblah (the direction facing Mecca). At the end of the hall closest to the qiblah, there is a large archway connected to a skylighted alcove, which forms an open boundary between the hall and the masjid.

Recently, ornate pieces of Arabic calligraphy have been installed in the center. At the mihrab, there is a piece containing many of the ninety-nine names of God. In the hall itself, on either side of the archway leading to the masjid, there are two large pieces of calligraphy. One depicts the hadith in which the Prophet designated ‘Ali as his successor, the other a qur’anic verse reputed to refer to Husain. During the first ten days of Muharram, the zakir, or person who delivers the majlis, sits upon the minbar (a wooden staircase of about six or seven steps that serves as a pulpit near the qiblah) between these two signs of the Ahl al-bayt’s authority to deliver his majlis (fig. 34).

Figure 34. The majlis hall at the Ja‘ffari Center in Toronto, showing minbar flanked by calligraphy. Photograph by Vernon Schubel.
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At one end of the hall, there is a room labeled zari, which contains replicas of the tombs of the imams (ta‘ziyahs) and other pictures and objects evocative of the Ahl al-bayt. There are also containers for making monetary offerings in the name of the imams, ‘Ali, or the Ahl al-bayt.

All these features serve to evoke the central paradigm of Shi‘i piety—allegiance to the Ahl al-bayt. The physical environment of the building continually draws one’s attention to the necessity of that allegiance by constantly evoking Karbala in both the spatial geometry and the decoration of the center. Karbala is thus always present within the imambargah. During the first ten days of Muharram, the presence of Karbala is intensified through the performance of devotional rituals.

Muharram 1411: Devotional Activities at the Ja‘ffari Center

Large crowds of people came to the center for the Muharram activities—an estimated three thousand people attended on Ashura day, the tenth, alone. They came to attend the religious performance called majlis, when people gather to remember and mourn in a structured way the deaths of the Ahl al-bayt. Majlis may be held quite frequently, but they are most intense during the first ten days of Muharram immediately following the evening prayer. The crowd assembles in the majlis hall facing the minbar. Immediately before the actual majlis, poetry (marthiyah) recalling Husain is recited in Urdu.

The zakir’s sermon from the minbar seeks to inspire his audience with a sense of mournful devotion to the Ahl al-bayt. The majlis begins with the quiet communal recitation of Sura Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an. This is followed by the khutba, a formulaic recitation in Arabic consisting of praise of God, the Prophet, and the Ahl al-bayt. At the center of the majlis is the zakir’s presentation of a religious topic. This portion of the majlis generally begins with a verse from the Qur’an, with the rest of the zakir’s discourse acting as an exegesis of that verse.

The last portion of the majlis is the gham, or lamentation, recitation of an emotional narrative of the sufferings of the family of the Prophet. During each of the first ten days of Muharram, the content of the gham is traditionally linked to a specific incident at the battle of Karbala, which is recounted by the zakir. For many people, the gham is the most important portion of the majlis. Members of the congregation begin to sob and wail at the beginning of the gham. The mourning becomes more and more intense as the incidents of Karbala are recounted. People may strike their chests and foreheads. The gham ends with the zakir himself overcome with tears and emotion.

On certain days, the gham is followed by matam, the physical act of mourning. The performance of matam is exceedingly emotional. From the seventh through the tenth of Muharram, the matam is prolonged. Rhythmic and musical variations of poetry are sung by young men standing near the minbar, while the crowd joins in a calling pattern of repetition. The rhythm of the matam is carried by the metrical striking of the hands against the chest.

On the last four days of these rituals, the matam is preceded by small julus, or processions, within the imambargah itself. Symbols that evoke the stories of the martyrs of Karbala are carried through the crowd in the majlis hall. These take many forms: coffins draped in white cloth colored with red dye, as if bloodstained; a cradle representing the infant martyr ‘Ali Asghar; a standard bearing the five-fingered Fatimid hand, representing both the severed hand of the martyr Abbas and the five closest members of the Prophet’s family—Muhammad, Fatima, ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husain. The matam concludes with the recitation of ziyarat (visitation), in which the entire congregation turns in the directions of the tombs of the Ahl al-bayt and recites salutations to them. Ziyarat is the word used for pilgrimage to the tombs of the imams. As used here, however, it refers to Arabic recitations that serve as metaphorical visits to the tombs of the Imams. This is often followed by the communal sharing of food and drink before the congregation disperses.

These rituals focus the attention of their participants on the Ahl al-bayt and the necessity of allegiance to it. The didactic portions of the majlis are reinforced by the emotional power of the gham, matam, and julus, which follow. Through the gham, the community emotionally enters into Karbala. The fact that the ritual concludes with a metaphorical ziyarat, or visitation, of the places where the Ahl al-bayt are buried is significant. The majlis creates an actual encounter with Karbala and challenges the community to live up to its standards.

On this occasion, Ashura coincided with the 1400th anniversary of the events at Ghadir Khumm. The community commemorated the event with the publication of a book on the subject containing articles by a number of scholars (including Dr. Sachedina, who was serving as zakir). The importance of Ghadir Khumm in Shi‘i history prompted a good deal of discussion within the community around about the meaning of Shi‘i identity.

The main majlis was presented by Dr. Sachedina, himself a member of the East African immigrant community of Indian origin. Dr. Sachedina’s majlis made continual reference to Ghadir Khumm, as well as to Karbala. He presented his majlis primarily in English. Some of the content of the majlis dealt with topics that were seen as controversial in the community; at times his positions seemed to provoke some dissension. In response, Sachedina noted during his majalis that the minbar on which he sat was not his, but rather the twelfth imam’s—thus he believes that what he says as a zakir must conform to the message of the Ahl al-bayt, even if it makes members of the community uncomfortable. Since the majlis is presented in the memory of Karbala, it should challenge the community, just as the original incident at Karbala challenged the ummah.

Aside from the main majlis presented by Sachedina, there were earlier majlis by other zakirs and specific women’s majlis. A tent was erected adjacent to the masjid for special English-language majlis for the children and youth. A second tent was established to the west of the center that was used by the local Arabic-speaking Shi‘i community, consisting of Muslim immigrants from Arab countries, for their majlis. During the main majlis, men were seated upstairs in the main hall, whereas women were seated in a room below, facing closed circuit television sets, on which the majlis was broadcast.

The seating of men and women is a source of contention within the community. Sachedina several times raised the issue of gender partition from the minbar, which prompted much discussion after the majlis among members of the community. A member of the community told me that there was a time when men and women sat together for majlis; however, when other members of the community arrived from East Africa, where it was customary for the majlis to be fully segregated, they were shocked by this and demanded that there be a partition dividing men and women within the imambargah (cf. Qureshi, this volume). I was told that a fatwa (legal opinion) had been sought from the late Iranian Ayatollah Khui on this issue, and he had replied that if men and women dressed modestly, there was no need for segregation in the majlis hall. Those opposed to partition point out that whereas most of the women in the community practice some degree of modest dress, few practice full segregation except in the imambargah. If the imambargah becomes the only place in which purdah is practiced, it suggests that it is the function of the imambargah to preserve an East African identity rather than to create a North American Shi‘i one. More important, they argue, if the imambargah cannot be used to instill a sense of propriety of interaction between men and women, where will the youth of the community gain the training and discipline necessary to live in a larger society where they must interact with the other gender?

Another point of controversy in the community concerns the use of English as the language of the majlis. Sachedina made the decision to present the majority of his majlis in English, except for the gham, which he read in the traditional Urdu—which has long served as a lingua franca for South Asian Muslims, and has long been the language of the majlis for the Khojas who make up the majority of the congregation. Urdu is both a popular and a scholarly language with a highly developed literary tradition. The issue of the proper language for the majlis has been debated in the community at least since 1981. Many in the community believe that the majlis must be presented in Urdu, as English cannot convey the proper emotional timbre. Others argue that, since so few of the children can speak Urdu, an English majlis is a necessity if the majlis is to have any value for them. One concession to this has been made through the establishment of a children’s majlis in English.

Sachedina’s decision to present the entire ten days of the main majlis in English was in fact one that he felt he had to justify from the minbar. He argued that the topic of his majlis was more appropriately dealt with in English, even though it was on a theme aimed at adults rather than young people. Interestingly, teenagers tended to attend Sachedina’s majlis until the beginning of the gham. Then they would go outside of the hall either simply to gather in small groups or to listen to the English-language youth majlis. Sachedina had previously expressed the opinion in a series of majlis in 1981 that Urdu was not originally an Islamic language: it only became one as Muslims used it. He argued that English will only become an Islamic language when it is spoken by North American Muslims in religious contexts (see Note on Transliteration, this volume).

The controversies over language and gender partition both point to a central dilemma of this immigrant community: is the purpose of the center to preserve a particularly South Asian and East African form of piety within the community or to facilitate the emergence of a uniquely North American articulation of Islam? The younger generation are fluent in the popular culture of North America. They watch In Living Color and The Simpsons and are as fascinated by them as any other young people in North America. At the same time, they are drawn to the majlis both as a devotional ritual and as a way of making sense of their identity as Muslims in North America. Pride in Muslim identities was clearly evident, particularly in the instances when teenagers brought non-Muslim school friends with them to observe the majlis. The attendance of non-Muslims at the majlis underscores the value of the English majlis in creating common ground between the members of the community and other Canadians. Because of the emphasis on the ethical content of Shi‘ism, which resonates strongly with elements of Christian and European ethics, the English majlis simultaneously creates a common ground for Muslims and non-Muslims visitors within an explicitly Muslim arena.

Young people seemed especially interested in Sachedina’s approach to Islam, which takes the classical tradition very seriously while simultaneously recognizing the unique challenges of articulating Islam in the presence of modernity. Since discussions about the development of a distinctively North American articulation of Islam are not without controversy, the majlis provides an arena for discussions that might otherwise be too sensitive and divisive outside of the ritual confines of “sacred structure.”

The Blood of Husain

In addition to majlis, the re-creation of Karbala took other dramatic forms, such as the annual blood drive. Blood is an important symbol connected with Muharram. Husain is linked by blood to Muhammad, and the spilling of his blood on the field of Karbala is an act that is seen by the community as essential to the salvation of Islam. In South Asia, acts of ritual flagellation, called zanjir ka-matam, are commonplace; however this spilling of blood in remembrance of Husain is seen as problematic in the Western context.

Recent fatwas have shown that flagellation—while considered permissible—is nevertheless an act that is allowed only with the provision that it not be done in such a way as to bring embarrassment to Islam. Zanjir ka-matam is conspicuously absent from processions in North America. When I attended Muharram observances in 1986 at an imambargah located near a fast-food restaurant in New York City, the private practice of matam drew a large crowd of confused North Americans. The initial derision and amazement of American students when I lecture on this subject has demonstrated clearly to me the problem of explaining zanjir ka-matam in the West. Some of the people I talked to at the Ja‘ffari Center stated that they believed that such a practice was illegal in Canada. In any event, zanjir ka-matam was not performed at the center.

Instead, East African communities both in Pakistan and North America have engaged in an interesting transformation of blood-shedding in the memory of Husain. For many years, they have encouraged people to shed blood by donating it to blood banks. At the Ja‘ffari Center on the day of Ashura, the community set up a Red Cross blood bank and donated over 163 units of blood. Many more people were turned down because in view of the AIDS crisis, the Red Cross would no longer accept blood from people from sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the most interesting discussions within the community addressed from the minbar had to do with the issue of whether or not this blood could be given to non-Muslims. Sachedina argued on the basis of hadith that the imams had given water and food to people in need without asking first if they were Muslim or non-Muslim; thus blood donation to non-Muslims was allowable. The majority of the community seemed to share his opinion.

“This is Karbala”

During the Ashura period, a scale model of Karbala was erected outside along the rear wall of the center building (fig. 35). I was told that this custom had recently become popular in Tanzania and had made its way to North America in the past few years. The model battlefield was laid out in a wooden box filled with sand. A trench was dug through the sand to represent the river Euphrates. The tents of the forces of Husain, as well as those of Caliph Yazid’s general, ‘Umar, were erected in the relevant locations and marked with signs. Toy soldiers and horses were placed in different positions on different days to represent the changing circumstances of the combatants. Signs identifying the location of important events of the battle such as “Martyrdom place of Imam Hussein, Son of Ali and Fatema, Grandson of the Holy Prophet,” “Place of Amputation of the Left Arm of Hazrat Abas Ibne Ali,” and “Place where Ali Ashgar was Buried” were placed on the model battlefield. A roof was erected over the entire area, and a sign was hung over the model battlefield that stated “This is Karbala.” A large map on the back wall of the model showed the route Husain and his followers took from Mecca to Karbala.

Figure 35. Model of Karbala outside the Ja‘ffari Center. Photograph by Vernon Schubel.
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On the last three nights, a cassette recording of Sachedina explaining the events of Karbala was played in the background. On Sham-i Ghariban, the night commemorating the struggles of the survivors of Karbala as they were marched toward Damascus, the model tents of the women were burned to re-create the actual burning of the tents, and wooden camels were arranged in a caravan to replicate the prisoners’ long march to Damascus. This model was primarily for the children, who in fact took a large part in arranging it. They seemed quite fascinated by it and could often be seen crowding around it.

Public Ritual: Julus in Toronto

The remembrance of Karbala not only serves to educate the community (particularly the younger generation), it also provides for the education of outsiders, as a means of calling them to the “true” Islam—the Islam best exemplified in the lives of the Ahl al-bayt. Thus, acts of ‘azadari occur both within the center, primarily for the spiritual benefit and education of the community, and outside the center, for the education of the larger community. From the perspective of the participants, Karbala speaks to the humanity of all people, drawing them not only to ethical action, but also to the eventual acceptance of Islam. To this end, the community stages a yearly procession through downtown Toronto.

The julus was held on the 6th of Muharram. It began at roughly 3:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, when the community gathered at Queen’s Park. Most of the community members, especially the women, were dressed in black. People carried banners and staffs, distributed water and other beverages, and handed out literature. In many particulars, the julus in Toronto mirrored similar processions in Pakistan, with a few important exceptions. There was no matam, and there was no horse representing Dhuljinnah, Husain’s mount; there were also no ta‘ziyahs or coffins. However, standards and banners similar to those found in Pakistan were present. Women marched separately from the men, at the rear of the procession, whereas in Pakistan women generally do not participate in processions. (The increased presence of women in community activities is a common theme throughout these essays.)

As in South Asia, the julus serves a number of important and interrelated functions. It enables the community both to reenact the Karbala paradigm and to display its religion to outsiders through such acts as distributing water, food, literature, and the presentation of speeches bearing witness to Karbala and its meaning. In Canada, this audience of outsiders is not only non-Shi‘a, but non-Muslim as well (cf. the processions described by Slyomovics and Werbner, this volume). Witnessing to this audience is problematic, given the ubiquitous stereotypes about Islam in American culture. The Muslim community is well aware of these stereotypes and the general lack of knowledge concerning Islam that produces them. It was no coincidence that the banner that led the procession read “Islam Stands for Peace,” a clear rebuttal of Western stereotypes about Islam as an inherently militaristic religion (fig. 36). As a matter of fact, despite the attempts of the community to use the julus for education about the religion of Islam, the press seemed more interested in asking questions about their reaction to the attempted Islamic coup that had just taken place in Trinidad. They were seemingly uninterested in the religious significance of the procession.

Figure 36. Banner proclaiming “Islam Stands for Peace” in a Toronto procession. Photograph by Vernon Schubel.
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The use of julus as an act of public ritual illustrates an interesting juncture between Shi‘i and North American culture. The julus has its origin in the Muslim world, and yet the act of people marching with banners in the downtown of Toronto seemed curiously familiar. In many ways, the julus of the Shi‘a could be seen by outside observers as simply another version of a secular activity, the parade. On one level, the community was simply bringing a ritual to Canada, but on another it was Islamizing the already familiar North American ritual of ethnic groups parading. This was even more obvious later in the week when the annual Caribbean Festival parade went through the streets of Toronto, with a distinctly different intent and atmosphere (cf. Slyomovics, this volume).

As a part of the educational function of the julus, members of the procession passed out a pamphlet entitled Islam: The Faith That Invites People to Prosperity in Both Worlds, which was clearly aimed at non-Muslims with little or no knowledge about Islam or Shi‘ism. It stressed the notion of peace in Islam and emphasized the common elements of the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It clearly elaborated a Shi‘i perspective, noting the need for an “authoritative leader in Islam who will guide the believers on the right path.” It further stressed the necessity of people rising in defense of God’s laws on earth, even to the point of martyrdom if necessary. The paradigmatic example of this martyrdom is, of course, that of Husain: throughout Islamic history, as a result of the battle of Karbala, “When rulers became oppressive, Muslims arose following the examples of Imam Husayn to demand Justice.”

This pamphlet presents its argument in a manner common in Shi‘i polemics; that is, it appeals to the universal human values expressed in the incident at Karbala. The root paradigms (Turner 1974) at the heart of the Karbala drama include such virtues as courage, honor, self-sacrifice, and the willingness to stand up against injustice and oppression. There is the conviction that the universality of these virtues may ultimately attract people to embrace Islam.

The procession, briefly diverted to avoid a gay and lesbian rights parade, made its way to a central downtown square, where a grandstand had been erected, from which speeches were read. There were few non-Muslims in attendance, but the ones who were there watched somewhat bemusedly from a distance. The presence of black-clad, modestly dressed women bearing a huge banner proclaiming, “Every day is Ashura, everywhere is Karbala” was, from the standpoint of non-Muslim Canadians, strikingly juxtaposed against the ultramodern architecture of downtown Toronto.

As with the majlis, the julus contained elements that made it clear that Karbala is not viewed as a past event that holds no meaning outside of its own time. One of the speeches that took place at this gathering deserves special mention in this regard. One of the speakers at the rally was a young black man who referred to himself as a Muslim who loved the Ahl al-bayt. He made a special point of noting that Husain had died to protect the rights of minorities and drew the community’s attention to the events at Oka, where Mohawk Indians had laid siege to a commuter bridge to protest the sale of their sacred lands for the construction of a golf course. The speaker called on the community to see the connections between Karbala and Oka and to send the food gathered at the annual food bank to the besieged Indians.

While the collection and distribution of food is a traditional part of the Muharram observance, the whole issue of giving charity to non-Muslims was controversial. It was addressed several times from the minbar, particularly with regard to the issue of blood donations. A taped telephone message at the center recorded before the julus not only gave the timings for various events but reminded community members to give to the food bank. It assured Muslims that the food would be distributed that year only to Muslims. Following this julus, however, an announcement was made before one of the majalis that a portion of the food would be sent to the Mohawks. This is only one example of the way in which the recollection of Karbala reveals courses of action in the present space and moment. From the Shi‘i perspective, the history of the Ahl al-bayt gives direction to the community in its present Karbala.


One night while I sat waiting for the majlis to begin, I overheard a small boy running into the center and shouting to a friend, “Karbala is here. It’s really here; it’s out back.” On one level, he was simply referring to the model of the battlefield outside of the center; but on another level, what he was saying was quite profound: the devotional activities at the center during Muharram indeed seek to re-create Karbala. For this child, a lifetime of participation in the paradigm of Karbala had begun.

The re-creation of Karbala allows Shi‘i Muslims to focus their attention on the necessity of allegiance to the Ahl al-bayt. For them, Karbala resonates as a beacon in what would otherwise be spiritual darkness, challenging all who encounter it. The ethical life of the community is continually measured against the lives of the participants in Karbala. For example, the first page of a pamphlet promoting a plan organized by the community for sponsoring orphans in the name of Hazrat Zainab states:

In the name of the great lady who looked after so many children under so much pressure after the event of Karbala, let us fulfill some of our duties as Muslims by actively helping one particularly needy child to enjoy the basic opportunities of life. As Muslims our struggles must go on. Helping the needy is one of the struggles whose results are satisfying. If we remember, “Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala,” then we will not forget the needy.

Karbala in this context not only serves as a point of reference for the maintenance of group identity, it is also a continuous call to creative ethical action. The Shi‘i community faces a number of problems common to all religious groups in North America: the impact of secularism, the temptations of materialism, and the often uncaring individualism of a capitalist economy. Majlis functions as a kind of Islamic revival meeting, calling people back to an ethical standard exhibited by Husain and his companions in the battle of Karbala.

Sachedina noted that because the imambargah can convey both cultural tradition and religion, there is always the danger that the former will take precedence over the latter. From his perspective, the imambargah is not a place for sentimental attachment to the customs of “home”: it is, rather, a place for spiritual regeneration. As places for the remembrance of Husain, imambargahs are in some sense “sacred spaces.” But as Sachedina told the community from the minbar in Toronto, there is, in actuality, no such thing as a specifically “sacred space” in Islam. The purpose and intention of Islam is to bring all of human activity into conformity with the Divine Will. If the imambargah becomes the only place where people encounter Karbala, then it fails to serve its purpose.

The imambargah succeeds in its purpose when people leave it having internalized Karbala. Since the imambargah is dedicated to Husain, Sachedina warned that if the community fails to use it in the proper way, then on the Day of Judgment, the very stones of the building will speak to pass judgment on the community. In a sense, “sacred spaces” such as the Ja‘ffari Center are problematic: for the very act of creating a sacred environment carries the risk of thoroughly secularizing the world outside of that space. The real “sacred space” in this interpretation of Shi‘ism is Karbala itself, as it is continually encountered in the hearts and lives of each succeeding generation. This focus on the creation of an inner ethical and spiritual life, fostered above all by devotional assemblies, proves to be a common thread in the religious lives of many of the diaspora communities described in this volume.


1. The Ja‘ffari Center was originally called the Muhammaddi Islamic Center, but its name was changed to honor the sixth Shi‘i imam, Ja‘far As-Sadiq, thus publicly reflecting the Shi‘i identity of the community. [BACK]

2. This was my second trip to visit this community. I had previously attended Muharram activities in 1982 in preparation for a year of research among Shi‘i Muslims in Karachi, Pakistan. Some thoughts on that previous visit can be found in Schubel 1991. The past eight years have seen a number of important developments in the community, some of which are discussed in this essay. [BACK]

3. I am indebted to Professor Karrar Hussein of Karachi, Pakistan, for this insight. [BACK]

4. The Shi‘i ritual calendar makes special note of these occasions as days of remembrance: the Prophet’s naming of ‘Ali as mawla; the victory at Khaibar under ‘Ali; the Prophet’s meeting with Christians at Najran; Fatima’s confrontation with Abu Bakr over Faydak. [BACK]

5. Although zikr in the form of the repetition of the names of God is usually associated with Sufi devotions, it is also a part of Shi‘i piety. [BACK]

6. Dr. Sachedina is not only a scholar of great renown in his community, but also a professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia. He is also a frequent zakir at the Ja‘ffari Center. [BACK]

Works Cited

Geertz, Clifford. 1972. The Interpretation of Cultures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. UC-eLinks

Schubel, Vernon J. 1991. “The Muharram Majlis: The Role of a Ritual in the Preservation of Shi‘a Identity.” In Muslim Families in North America, ed. Earle H. Waugh, Sharon McIrvin Abu Laban, and Regula Burckhardt Qureshi. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. UC-eLinks

——————. 1993. Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shi‘i Devotional Rituals in Pakistan. Charleston: University of South Carolina Press. UC-eLinks

Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. UC-eLinks

Waugh, Earle H., Sharon McIrvin Abu Laban, and Regula Burckhardt Qureshi, eds. 1991. Muslim Families in North America. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. UC-eLinks

11. The Muslim World Day Parade and “Storefront” Mosques of New York City

Susan Slyomovics

The Muslim World Day Parade and the “storefront” mosque both present images of Islam in the city of New York, illuminating political and organizational activities that promote symbolic modes of expression for an emerging Muslim community.

New York City dwellers are nationally famous for their use of collective gatherings such as public parades to enact complex social relations of ethnicity, religion, and power (Kasinitz and Friedenberg-Herbstein 1987; Kelton 1985; Kugelmass 1991). One day each year since 1986, city streets and urban neighborhoods have temporarily reflected festive images of Muslim community solidarity. Similarly, numerous “storefront” mosques (parallel to “storefront” churches and temples) constitute a specifically Muslim reusage and makeover of the quintessential urban venue, the commercial storefront: a first-floor space facing on the street, its entrance flanked by glass windows for merchandise display, that is generally owned or rented by a business for use as a shop. In the terminology of vernacular architecture, the term storefront is extended to housing stock, such as apartments, suburban homes, or lofts, when it is transformed into markedly different spaces and new uses—in this case, to sacred space functioning as a mosque.

The storefront mosque comes under the rubric of “non-pedigreed architecture,” a label designating the “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous” constructions of the informal, undocumented sector (Rudofsky 1964). So too a parade can be considered as vernacular street drama whose social context, like the storefront mosques, mirrors the changing demographics of the city. In addition, the Muslim World Day Parade explicitly draws upon the iconography of the mosque, not only as a form of self-representation, but also as an image for non-Muslim audiences to interpret.

The Muslim World Day Parade

The oldest continuous civic parade in New York City is the Irish-American St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which celebrated its two hundredth and thirty-first year in 1993. Many of the subsequently established one hundred and sixty-eight annual ethnic day parades currently marching in downtown Manhattan borrow from the Irish prototype the established “grammar” of parade enactment: floats, marching bands, forward military-like march formation, related community groups, local politicians, banners, and so forth (Kelton 1985: 104). The recently inaugurated Muslim World Day Parade has added the performance of mosque architecture, Muslim procession, and prayer to the visual repertory of parade display.

The Muslim World Day Parade begins with the marchers transforming the intersection of Lexington Avenue and Thirty-third Street into an outdoor mosque (fig. 37). The mosque is, literally, a masjid, “a place where one prostrates oneself [before God],” in the context of canonically fixed movements and verbal repetitions. Strips of plastic are laid down diagonally along Lexington Avenue so that participants and worshippers face the northeast corner of the two intersecting streets. The parade thus begins with an outdoor collective ceremony that demarcates the Muslim community and represents the primordial and recurrent moment of the sanctification of the community and the world by a prayerful gathering for which no specific architectural setting is necessary.

Figure 37. The 1991 Muslim World Day Parade: Lexington Avenue and Thirty-third Street becomes an outdoor mosque. Photograph by Susan Slyomovics.
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Floats, a necessary feature of New York City parades, here take the form of scale models of the three holiest mosques of Islam, concrete expressions of the faith. Parade organizers present these mosques as cultural symbols to teach historic and religious values. First, the Ka‘ba, the holiest shrine in Islam, is identified as the “House of God, located in Makkah [Mecca], Saudi Arabia.” The second site, that of Muhammad’s heavenly ascent, is also identified by place: the Dome of the Rock, which “is” Jerusalem (al-Quds, the name of the mosque and the city). The third, the Masjid Al-Haram, is identified by its location in Medina and its role as the burial place of the Prophet. The information conveyed about these floats is presumably for non-Muslims.

Indeed, a significant characteristic of the Muslim World Day Parade that contrasts with other parades is the visual importance and legibility of banners and signs. Parading banners or carrying the word of Islam becomes the parade’s most noteworthy feature and one that points, at the same time, to the omission of other classic parade entertainments: scantily clad females, women on display in floats, dancers, and so forth. Signage identifies specific Islamic organizations and sites unknown to the spectators, who thus acquire knowledge of New York’s newer religious groupings by reading the unfolding documentation of the breadth of Islam in the world or even of its local co-ethnic permutations (e.g., the Islamic Society of Staten Island, the Chinese Muslim organization, and PIEDAD, the acronym for the emerging Hispanic Muslim community).

Muslim marchers also carry their message by means of banners largely in English with quotes explaining Islam and specifically targeted to non-Muslims: “the qur’an is the guidence [sic] for all mankind” (fig. 38). Bystanders literally read ambulating sacred texts as if cinematic subtitles were translating the gestures of the marchers to the viewers. Signs proclaim, “There is no God but Allah the One, the Absolute, the Almighty, One Creator, One Humanity,” followed by signs bearing the names of Jewish and Christian prophets recognized by Islam, with Muhammad as the last seal of prophecy: “Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.” Many signs emphasize Islam’s inclusive embrace of figures identified with Judeo-Christian religions, all of whom are honored by Islam. Such signs are also characteristics of the Muhurram procession in Canada and the Sufi processions in Britain described elsewhere in this volume (cf. Schubel, Werbner).

Figure 38. The 1991 Muslim World Day Parade: Banners preceding the float of the Ka‘ba. Photograph by Susan Slyomovics.
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The domain in which the parade takes place is a prominent New York City public space: a march southward down Lexington Avenue heading from Thirty-third Street to Twenty-third Street, a route identified with South Asian food, travel, and sari stores. Thus, Muslim space on a New York City avenue can be temporarily created by combining two contrasting forms: the ephemeral structure and format of a civic parade and the monumentality of mosques on floats during the parade (Slyomovics 1995).

“Storefront” Mosques

Muslim civic parades highlight issues relevant to a survey of some New York City storefront mosques: the use and nature of signs, the designated space in which to hear the call to prayer, the orientation toward Mecca, and the presentation of the Muslim self to the American public.

The Queens Muslim Center

The mosques that float down Lexington Avenue may be recognizably famous structures such as the Dome of the Rock or they may be prototypical mosques in high architectural style. However, the fourth mosque float in the Muslim World Day Parade in 1990 represented the future Queens Muslim Center. This float is the point of departure for my inquiry into the nature of storefront mosques (fig. 39). The float is the only currently realized form of that mosque, which otherwise exists only as a hole in the ground in Flushing in the Borough of Queens.

Figure 39. The 1991 Muslim World Day Parade: Float of the Queens Muslim Center, with sign of the basmala (In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful). Photograph by Susan Slyomovics.
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The Queens Muslim Center was founded in June 1975 by Hanafi Sunni immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, in a rented apartment on Forty-first Avenue in Queens. The center is situated in the well-to-do middle-class neighborhood of Flushing, where the other predominant ethnic group is the flourishing Chinese community, estimated at seventy thousand strong. In 1977, the center was incorporated as a nonprofit tax-exempt institution, and by 1979, members had purchased a one-family house for $75,000 in cash. The adjacent house was purchased shortly afterward, and the two structures were razed for the new building. Groundbreaking for the new building took place on May 21, 1989. Photographs of the event prominently feature the presence of the imam of the Ka‘ba, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdullah bin Homaid of Saudi Arabia, flanked by then Mayor Edward Koch.

While awaiting the completion of their new structure, the members meet in a two-and-a-half story, gable-roofed house located around the corner at 137–63 Kalmiah Street. The temporary quarters of the Muslim Center has room for only two hundred members. The carved wooden door leads to an enclosed porch with shelves for storing shoes and a bulletin board for written notices. From the porch, a staircase leads to the upstairs women’s section. The downstairs is completely opened up, except for the kitchen wall entrance. The interior is carpeted and strips of tape orient the worshipper to Mecca. A pulpit made from kitchen cabinets and two wooden steps surmounted by a simple flat, wooden domelike ornament creates a minbar (pulpit or seat). Markaz (“The Center”), the magazine published by the Queens Muslim Center, describes a new building with room for five hundred and fifty people to pray in the main mosque, outside halls with room for one thousand six hundred people, another community hall seating four hundred, a kitchen, an Islamic school, and a gymnasium offering lessons in martial arts and the Qur’an. When it is finished, the Muslim Center will be an instance of successful transition from rented apartment to purchased house (both of them makeshift “storefront” expedients) to architecturally purposeful mosque and community center complete with designed dome, crescent moon, and minaret, the kind of mosque now typically preferred in the diaspora (cf. Haider, this volume).

The Queens Muslim Center embodies the aspirations of many, although not all, Muslim communities in New York City. These are best articulated by Levent Akbarut in “The Role of Mosques in America,” an article written for The Minaret, a widely circulating newspaper based in East Orange County, California, and excerpted in Markaz (1990). Akbarut argues that the American mosque, in contrast to mosques in the countries of origin, needs to be a school, because urban schools are substandard; a community center, because the streets are dangerous; and a locus of political activity, such as voter-registration drives, so that Muslims will have a say in the decision-making processes of this country (cf. Eade, this volume). Quoting a saying, or hadith, from Al-Bukhari, the author acknowledges that “a mosque within the confines of four walls and a ceiling is not a requirement for a Muslim community to offer prayer, because God has made the whole earth a sanctuary for worship.” Why then, he asks, did the Prophet build a mosque during the Medinan era? The answer is that the mosque functioned as a center of Islamic affairs and organization and thereby nurtured and sustained the Islamic effort. This example should be kept in mind by Muslims seeking to establish Islam in America (Akbarut 1986: 10). What the author envisions is precisely what the Muslim Center in Queens hopes to achieve: not only a mosque, but a building that unmistakably declares what it is, as opposed to the unmarked Queens house that currently functions as a mosque.

Masjid Al-Falah, Corona, Queens

This same theme is evident in the building of a second Hanafi Sunni mosque located in Corona, Queens, a lower-middle-class neighborhood populated primarily by Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central and South America. Masjid Al-Falah, at 42–12 National Street, began as a rented storefront carved out of a three-story wooden house in 1976. (The storefront is now occupied by a Pakistani restaurant, the Mi‘raj, whose proprietor is active in the mosque.) The mosque membership then purchased the lot across the street, where a single-story mosque structure was completed in 1982.

Masjid Al-Falah was given a building prize by the Borough of Queens. It holds approximately seven hundred and fifty people, but there are plans for two additional stories, a dome, and a forty-foot-high minaret. Only the base of the minaret has been laid out, because a forty-foot minaret is not certain to obtain a borough building permit. Although the Queens Muslim Center has received borough permission for minarets and domes, its muezzin and the sounds of the call to prayer must remain electronically unamplified, and out of deference to the secular authorities, the Corona mosque’s imam likewise uses only the power of his voice to summon worshippers.

In this case, the architectural goals derive not from the membership but from the builder, William Park, a Korean construction engineer who was at one time chief engineer of Korean construction crews in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. (The architect named on the billboard outside the project, Jone Jonassen, is in fact a “front,” since a valid architect’s license is needed to file the plans.) Park says his designs are based on his own impressions of the composite mosque architecture that he saw and helped to construct in the Gulf states. Thus, the architectural tastes of the oil-rich countries, filtered through the sensibilities of a Korean crew working in Saudi Arabia, have also immigrated on a smaller scale to New York.

Al-Fatih Mosque, Brooklyn

A third example of transforming structures designed for other purposes into an acceptable mosque is the Turkish Al-Fatih mosque located in the multi-ethnic Sunset Park district of Brooklyn at 5911 Eighth Avenue. Serving some five hundred and fifty members, the building, purchased in 1979, provides space, not only for prayer but also for a school on weekends, a women’s organization, youth clubs, and student cultural activities. The mosque is located on a block that houses a series of Turkish businesses whose storefronts fill half of the block, among them a halal grocery for Middle Eastern foods and a business that acts as a cultural and linguistic broker for the local Turkish-speaking community by providing income tax, realty, air travel, and translation services. Sunset Park’s ethnic diversity is evident in the adjacent block, which houses a Japanese hairdresser, a Buddhist storefront temple, and a Chinese bookstore and restaurant.

The Turkish mosque was originally a movie theater, designed, as many American movie houses have been, as a Hollywood amalgam of Orientalist-Moorish-Arabesque fantasies (cf. Haider, this volume, fig. 6). The conversion of the movie house into a mosque reclaims the Orientalist style, invests it with new meaning, and literally reorients the building. The exterior portals have been refashioned by a Turkish carpenter, Irfan Altinbasak, to form semicircular arches. New American-made plastic-based Turkish-styled tiles are being used to replace the original Iznik tiles, dislodged one by one by the inclement New York City weather, to redecorate the exterior.

As worshippers enter on the left, they encounter the former ticket booth area, now converted to a religious bookstore, while on the right-hand side, there is a wall decorated with beautiful Turkish tiles from Iznik. Although a donor’s name might be calligraphically acknowledged on mosque walls in Islamic lands, it is a distinctly American touch to set up a wall of donors: eventually each tile will carry the name of a donor who contributed to the establishment of the mosque. What was once the lobby of the movie house is now divided into sections by a series of arcades layered with marble added by the Turkish carpenter, a genuine Oriental addition to the original Oriental decor. The arcades serve no structural purpose but provide a decorative and emotional tone. Once, the Oriental touches made the movie theater feel like a luxurious, privileged space, set off from ordinary life; what they do now is “to make the interior feel like a mosque,” as the Turkish leaders informed me.

The main part of the praying area is the actual screening auditorium, the back wall of which serves as the qibla, with a wooden minbar and a tiled mihrab. The stage where the screen once was has become a cordoned-off women’s section. The Turkish mosque is thus a very powerful reinscription of interior space: American moviegoers once faced in the opposite direction to present-day Muslim worshippers, who literally turn their backs on the space where sex goddesses were once displayed on the screen, which is instead now occupied by women screened off from view.

Curvilinear, draperylike forms overhang the stage and have been highlighted and emphasized by painted designs. The carpeted interior is bare, with the exception of two model mosques. One is used as a collection box, and the second, evoking the minaret skyline of Istanbul, is placed on a raised dais; no explanations were given to me for its presence. Amplification is only permitted in the interior of the mosque. The imam expressed a wish for an exterior dome and a minaret, but here, too, there had been difficulty in obtaining the necessary building permit.

Creating Mosques: The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens

Several other examples illustrate the transformation of buildings into mosques. The Islamic Sunnat-ul-Jamaat, a Hanafi Sunni mosque in the Bronx at 24 Mt. Hope Street was created by English-speaking Guyanese immigrants of Indian Muslim descent. Beginning in a basement on the Grand Concourse in 1978, they purchased a three-story single-family building in 1988 for $45,000 and now have 500 paying members, among them a minority of West Africans. They now plan to buy the adjacent building in order to be able to accommodate the three to four thousand worshippers they hope to have. They have marked the entrance to their mosque as sacred space by a sign in Arabic with English transliteration: “O God, open to me the doors of your mercy.”

The interior staircase separates men praying on the first floor from women on the second. Interior walls and partitions have been gutted; as in other American mosques, masking-tape guide lines run the length of the first and second floors to orient worshippers toward Mecca. On Sunday, October 7, 1990, the Prophet’s birthday (Mulid an-Nabi), a celebration was combined with the annual general meeting and election of mosque officers, thus complying with New York State rules for nonprofit organizations and combining ritual and business. The members videotaped the event, not only for themselves, but for their families back in Guyana, who could thus see the building and the celebration. The four-hour celebration ended with a homecooked meal of Indian, West Indian, and West African cuisine served upstairs to the women and outside to the men.

Two true storefronts in Brooklyn exemplify modest transformations to create appropriate mosques. The Masjid Ammar Bin Yasser, at Eighth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, is a storefront of a building owned and inhabited by a Palestinian family from Ramallah. Most of the two hundred and fifty members are Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian. The first-floor mosque and the basement school, named after Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, have been operating since 1986. The interior space was transformed into a mosque by cutting two large semicircular arches into the wall that formerly divided the space in two and by turning the two interior doorways that once opened into the next building into mihrabs, one signaled by a carpet, and the second more elaborately by a carpet and tiling and by the installation of a minbar. On the outside, varnished wooden slats have replaced the storefront windows. Most poignantly, signs depicting a dome and minaret stand in for the absent, prohibited structures.

The second nearby storefront mosque, Masjid Moussa Bin Omaer, is situated on Fifth Avenue near Sixty-second street in Brooklyn, an area of three-story single-family homes whose bottom floors were converted to storefronts as the street became a commercial thoroughfare. The mosque has rented space since 1987, and its interior is protected by white-painted wooden planks, now covered with graffiti. The members of the mosque, mainly Egyptians and Palestinians, did not wish me to photograph the interior because they had just begun to build and felt, therefore, that this was not yet a real mosque and should not be documented.

Similarly, one of the members of the Masjid Al-Fatima in Woodside, Queens, interrupted my interior picture-taking. The Al-Fatima mosque occupies the basement, rent-free, of a commercial building and storefront owned by a Pakistani, who runs a fleet of taxis from the rest of his building. The downstairs uses alternating strips of colored carpet to orient the worshipper to Mecca. The minbar is a simple carpeted step. The entrance to the basement mosque is again signaled by a green-painted carved dome with a sign.

The Turkish-Cypriot mosque in Morris Park, the Bronx, is the former rectory of a Protestant church. The new owners put their imprint on the front of the building by appropriating decorative techniques of Italian-American grillwork on window frames for their latticelike, nonfigurative qualities and then transforming the side square windows with cardboard inserts, two visual display techniques suggesting Islamic not Gothic arches.

Mosques have also been created from suburban homes in Queens (for example, a one-year-old Afghan mosque marked only by its discreet sign); from a five-story commercial warehouse (Masjid Al-Farouq on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn); from a Brooklyn Heights townhouse (Masjid Daud, established in 1936); from a commercial warehouse (by Crimean Turks, who are located in the otherwise entirely Orthodox Jewish Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn); from a former dentist’s office (in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica); and from the basement of a storefront in the Bronx. This last example may be a first stage: the basement “storefront” mosque might expand upstairs to the actual storefront and eventually be replaced by a newly constructed mosque.

It should be emphasized that Muslims and mosques in the outer boroughs of New York City are regarded by non-Muslims as positive presences in a neighborhood, even in an insular Italian-American neighborhood like Morris Park. Dan Fasolino, the local Democratic district leader, a former New York City police officer turned realtor, tightly monitors neighborhood property sales. He claims to speak for the local community when he says that immigrant Muslims are hard-working, entrepreneurial, upwardly mobile new Americans. One does well to remember this, given that one storefront mosque acquired sudden prominence in the United States: the al-Salam mosque, currently occupying the third floor of a commercial building in Jersey City (New York Times, September 9, 1993). This is the mosque associated with Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is alleged to have been implicated in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.


A song sung by the female students of the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat mosque in the Bronx on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday (fig. 40) suggests themes in Muslim self-representation in New York City shared by mosque architecture as well. The melody was a southern railroader’s dirge made famous during the folk-song revival of the early 1960s by groups such as The Journeymen, The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It also became famous under the song title “Five Hundred Miles”:

If you miss the train I’m on
You will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow 500 miles
500 miles, 500 miles
Lord I’m 500 miles away from home
Not a shirt on my back
Not a penny to my name
Lord I can’t go back home this-a-way
Figure 40. Young students at the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat mosque in the Bronx. Photograph by Susan Slyomovics.
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The Peter, Paul and Mary version was a worldwide best-selling record, and clearly it must have been heard in Guyana. The original American verses speak of the adventure, the poverty, and the romance of the lonesome road that never reverts back home. The new Muslim lyrics make a different use of the metaphor of life as a road: “Do you know what Islam says / It says life’s a big big chance / It says that life is a far road space / Return upon rest.” The words of the chorus replace “This-a-way, Lord I can’t go back home this-a-way” with “A way of life, Islam is a way of life, a complete way.”

The melody, a kind of architectural framework, is given, but the content is new. Similarly, a pamphlet describing the Shi‘ite mosque services, which was pressed into my hand by the Iraqi imam of the Brooklyn Shi‘ite temple during the bombing of Baghdad by the United States and its allies in the Gulf War, bears this legend superimposed on a map of the United States: “This is our destiny, let us make it.” Muslims express their culture in new ways within the space and institutions of their larger sociopolitical world.

The movement I am charting begins with interior space gutted, transformed, and even acoustically reconfigured to Muslim sacred space, then expands outward according to the increased membership and prosperity of the community, and finally triumphantly rewrites American locales, either transiently, as for the Muslim World Day Parade, or permanently, as in the case of the new Manhattan All-Muslim mosque on Third Avenue and Ninety-sixth Street, between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, officially serving all of New York City (fig. 4, this volume). While Muslims would acknowledge that a mosque requires little more than a property or rented space, many seek such impressive buildings. One of the members of the Guyanese Bronx mosque said to me that their mosque in the Bronx, the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat, was not a real mosque. The real mosque was a picture appliqued on her purse depicting a Saudi mosque. A real mosque, she said, had a minaret and a dome and was richly decorated inside and outside. Her description in fact resembled the official All-Muslim mosque.

We can never be sure, when using architecture or vernacular architecture to “read” contemporary ethnicity, whether a given reading accurately interprets what is being said. Even though architectural phenomena are hard and objective, their meanings are soft and ambiguous. Architecture represents social meaning. Physical space also affects its occupants. For example, do Turkish worshippers in a transformed Oriental-style movie house come to think of themselves as “Oriental”?

New York City is a center of cultural production, a process that has been more laissez faire in the United States than in Europe. Ritual prayer and creating spaces for that prayer have been central activities in Muslim community life. In the Muslim World Day parade—featuring, above all, mosque replicas—and the new mosques, Muslims are finding ways to create new communities while inserting themselves into this particular state and its larger society. This is a process that leaves both sides changed.

Works Cited

Akbarut, Levent. 1990. “The Role of Mosques in America.” Markaz: Journal of the Muslim Center of New York (Groundbreaking Special Number) 12: 10–12. Reprinted from The Minaret, November–December 1986. UC-eLinks

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press. UC-eLinks

Kasinitz, Philip, and Judith Friedenberg-Herbstein. 1987. “The Puerto Rican Parade and the West Indian Carnival.” In Caribbean Life in New York City: Sociocultural Dimensions, ed. Constance R. Sutton and Elsa M. Chaney, pp. 327–50. New York Center for Migration Study. UC-eLinks

Kelton, Jane Gladden. 1985. “The New York City St. Patrick Day’s Parade: Invention of Contention and Consensus.” Drama Review, no. 29: 93–105. UC-eLinks

Kugelmass, Jack. 1991. “Wishes Come True: Designing the Greenwich Halloween Parade.” Journal of American Folklore 104: 443–65. UC-eLinks

Rudofsky, Bernard. 1964. Architecture without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. UC-eLinks

Slyomovics, Susan. 1995. “New York City’s Muslim World Day Parade.” In Nation and Migration: The Politics of Space in the South Asian Diaspora, ed. Peter van der Veer, pp. 157–76. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. UC-eLinks

12. Nationalism, Community, and the Islamization of Space in London

John Eade

The focus on Islam in certain London locales has been strengthened during the past five years by national and international events such as The Satanic Verses controversy and the Gulf War. The appearance of mosques and community centers has visibly reminded non-Muslims of the expansion of Muslim settlers in certain urban neighborhoods. The construction and use of these buildings has been part of a process of making new demands upon public space, a process that has become embroiled with non-Muslim concerns over a visible and audible Muslim presence. Although both sides have concentrated on religion as a basis for community identity, non-Muslims have sometimes referred to other notions of belonging that are, even if implicitly, racist through their construction of a British or English nation whose cultural heritage is threatened by Muslim “outsiders.”

In the debates described below, the same Muslims who took sides over religious issues had previously united in other contexts around other symbols of identity—as Bangladeshis, for example (see Eade 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992). Although it is not surprising that a Muslim identity has been preeminent in conflicts over mosques and other Islamic spaces, that identity has, in general, been emphasized in recent years, rather than secular, nationalist identities. Non-Muslim opponents, meanwhile, have developed notions of belonging based on an urban, secular, national heritage sometimes linked to a “Christian tradition,” a process Bloul refers to as dual ethnicization (cf. Bloul, this volume). These attempts to co-opt Christianity in an exclusive formulation of local and national belonging have, ironically, been repudiated by at least some representatives of the established church. The debate over the Muslim presence in London has operated across local, national, and international levels. The process has encouraged people on both sides to prioritize certain identities as authentic.

Tower Hamlets and the Establishment of Mosques

The borough of Tower Hamlets adjoins the City of London, the famous square mile of international high finance. Tower Hamlets has until recently been a predominantly working-class area heavily dependent on the docks and associated industries, as well as the garment trade, brewing, paper manufacture, furniture, and other specialized crafts. The borough has been intimately associated with the settlement of overseas settlers—Calvinist Protestant Huguenot silk weavers during the seventeenth century; Irish Catholics during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; Russian and Polish Jews, as well as Chinese, at the end of the nineteenth century. More recently, the area has attracted settlers from Malta, Cyprus, the Caribbean, Somalia, and, most significantly, Bangladesh. Today, Bangladeshis constitute by far the largest ethnic minority in Tower Hamlets—according to the 1991 Census, they comprised 22.9 percent of the population, or 36,900. In some western wards, the proportion of Bangladeshis ranges from 30 to over 75 percent.[1]

The establishment of mosques in the borough has been heavily influenced by these Sunni, Hanafi Bangladeshis. Not surprisingly, the well-established mosques are based in the western and central wards, which form the heartland of the “Muslim community.” The first building to be used for congregational worship, the East London Mosque, was on the Commercial Road near the docks. The mosque served Bengali lascars who had jumped ship during the interwar years and stayed on in Britain, finding work in Midlands manufacturing, traveling as peddlers, setting up the first “Indian restaurants,” and working in London’s major hotels (see Adams 1987).

Like so many mosques across the country, the East London Mosque was initially based in private accommodation. However, during 1965 it moved to a purpose-built construction nearby on Whitechapel Road. The new center provided facilities for a large congregation, as well as a bookshop, school, administrative offices, shops, living accommodation, and funeral service (cf. Haider, Slyomovics, this volume). During the past five years, the mosque’s prominent location and the diverse activities within its walls have enabled its leaders to gain a high profile, at least among non-Muslim outsiders such as central and local government officials, politicians, teachers, and welfare workers.

A second mosque, now known rather grandly as the London Great Mosque (Jamme Masjid), uses a building on Brick Lane, Spitalfields, that symbolizes the area’s intimate association with overseas settlers. The building was constructed by the Huguenots for religious worship and opened in 1742. It was later used as a Methodist chapel, and in 1895 it was leased to an ultra-orthodox Jewish society, the Machkizei Hadtha, which worked among the rapidly expanding population of Russian and Polish Jews. During the 1970s, the no-longer-used synagogue was bought by a group of Bangladeshi businessmen to use for congregational prayers. Inside, the building was still recognizably an eighteenth-century Protestant chapel, with the original gallery and wall paneling intact, although in a poor state of repair.

The two mosques developed contrasting and competing styles, whose origins lay in divergences between religious leaders during the late nineteenth century in British India. The Brick Lane Mosque recruited mullahs aligned with what is known as the “Barelvi” orientation, which emphasized the role of custom and shrines. Religious leaders at the East London Mosque, on the other hand, were influenced by the rival “Deobandi” teachings, which fostered a more self-consciously reformist tradition and criticized devotions around Sufi shrines (Metcalf 1982).

The differences between the mosques were also deepened by political cleavages. The Brick Lane Mosque was closely associated with the Bangladesh government and the Bangladesh High Commission in central London—an association celebrated by official visits to the mosque by President Hussain Muhammad Ershad during the 1980s. The East London Mosque, with its more “scriptural” religious style, was more closely aligned with Arab states in the Middle East and with Pakistan. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, for example, contributed £1,100,000 of the £2,000,000 total cost of building the new center, while ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Egypt were members of the mosque’s management committee.

Different strategies toward links with community organizations further sharpened the differences between the mosques. Religious leaders at the Brick Lane Mosque did not establish many ties with Bangladeshi community groups and non-Muslim outsiders partly because that role was performed by the Bangladesh Welfare Association (BWA). The offices of the BWA were in a neighboring building, and its business leaders played a key role in the establishment and the management of the mosque. The leaders of the East London Mosque, with no such community organization as ally, encouraged Muslim youth groups on the one hand and international organizations on the other. The East London Mosque established a close alliance with the Young Muslim Organization (YMO), for example, which rented offices in an adjoining street. The YMO was linked to the Da’wat ul Islam, a missionary organization based in Bangladesh and Pakistan but active across Britain. The East London Mosque’s funeral director and one of its oldest members was involved in another missionary organization, the Tablighi Jama‘at, which occupied a former synagogue in nearby St. Katharine’s ward, while the secretary of the East London Mosque’s management committee was a leading member of the Council of Mosques U.K. and Eire, a national pressure group supported by Saudi Arabia and located in central London.

The organizations and individuals associated with the East London Mosque gave the new purpose-built center a range of contacts at local and more global levels that were more cosmopolitan than the predominantly Bangladeshi ties established by the Brick Lane Mosque through the BWA. Furthermore, the East London Mosque encouraged a more literary approach toward Islam through its bookshop, which stocked devotional and educational books in English, Bengali, Urdu, and Arabic. The bookshop attracted the interest of non-Muslims from schools and colleges, who were also encouraged to visit the mosque. The custodians of the Brick Lane Mosque, in contrast, have made no effort to encourage non-Muslim visitors, although outsiders are welcome to come and go as they please. (The London Tablighi mosque, in further contrast, welcomes outsiders only once a week for the evening public meeting held in its building. See Metcalf, this volume.)

Although other mosques had emerged during the settlement of Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, the Brick Lane Great Mosque and the East London Mosque were the main focus of public debates about the presence of Islam in the borough during the 1980s. Those debates entailed factional struggles among Bangladeshi community leaders and organizations, as well as concerns of outsiders such as local government planners, politicians, businessmen, and residents.

The Brick Lane Great Mosque and Architectural Conservation

The Brick Lane Mosque occupies an eighteenth-century site, “listed as a building of architectural and historical interest” (fig. 41).[2] It is located in a conservation area that began to be “gentrified” during the 1980s—a process that entailed the “decanting” of Bangladeshi garment factories, shops, and residents and their replacement by well-heeled white owner-occupiers, City offices, and up-market shops. These changes, largely to the west of Brick Lane, rapidly transformed the character of the area known as Spitalfields. For some white outsiders, the mosque building was a physical expression of both a local English heritage and a gentrified, Georgian present. For the Muslim congregation, the mosque’s main attraction lay in its proximity to their council estate homes. For the mosque management committee, the building, while convenient, was a source of concern because of its need for renovations consistent with Muslim ritual requirements.

Figure 41. Brick Lane Mosque, Spitalfields, London. Photograph by John Eade.
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The mosque committee did little to change or Islamize the exterior, merely posting a list of prayer times on its main door and a large notice in Bengali, Arabic, and English on the building adjoining the former chapel. The exterior was recently refurbished and still appears to the non-Muslim visitor to be a plainly decorated eighteenth-century chapel.

Internally, however, the committee undertook substantial modification, reasonable to mosque members but offensive to local conservationists. The changes were stimulated by the 1985 visit of President Ershad and subsequent contributions from the Bangladesh government to finance a new floor to accommodate an additional six hundred worshippers. The refurbishment entailed the elimination of the dilapidated gallery and wall panelling.

No planning permission was required from the local authority for these renovations. Conservationists, however, were quick to protest. The architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, features editor of Architects’ Journal, a prestigious national weekly, and a leading member of the local conservation movement, was quoted in the local newspaper as saying: “What is so terrible is the way in which it was done. A lot of people are renovating houses in that area and they saw panelling being smashed. It was carried out brutally.” The president of the mosque management committee, however, insisted that concerns for the historical character of the building were in fact taken into account: “We are taking out a gallery, but the historical things are not being touched, they are being preserved.” Most important, he explained that the extra space provided by the refurbishment would alleviate a situation where “people are praying in the streets outside now” (East London Advertiser, October 17, 1986).

Both sides in this exchange appeared to agree on the importance of conservation of historical sites, but they differed over standards and procedures. Dan Cruickshank’s protest expressed the concern of the locally influential Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, of which he was “an indefatigable member” (Girouard et al. 1989: x), which condemned changes of a sort that at an earlier period would have attracted little public comment. Internal modifications of the Brick Lane site by its Jewish occupants during the late nineteenth century, for instance, do not appear to have caused concern (see Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 1973). Now, however, the conservationist lobby clearly regards the Huguenot refugees’ chapel as a vital expression of an indigenous urban culture and landscape. Whatever may have happened in the past, a wide constituency considers both the exterior and interior of the building as part of the local heritage.

The dispute highlights a fundamental problem at the heart of the conservationist project. What should be preserved as an authentic expression of England’s urban heritage? Raphael Samuel, a social historian and local resident, has made a powerful critique of the Spitalfields conservation process:

Is it a real historical past which provides the point of reference—or an imaginary one, of grandiose or gracious living? Where, if anywhere, is the line to be drawn between repair and reproduction, the authentically old and the contrived replica?…What alterations and additions are to be respected—the 1780s fanlight? the 1850s fireplace? the 1920s bracket lamp? the 1940s radiator?—and what removed as alien grafts? (Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989: 161)

The mosque management committee succeeded in solving the problem of the overcrowding during religious festivals while avoiding drawing further attention to the building’s Islamic function. It thus deflected what would presumably have been an even stronger reaction from outsiders.

The changes taking place in Spitalfields call into question the continuing effectiveness of this low-key strategy. The movement of City businesses and wealthy owner-occupiers into the ward has been accompanied by the migration of Bangladeshi firms and residents from West Spitalfields as the garment trade has shifted its center toward the south and east of Brick Lane. Bangladeshis still dominate council estates in the central and eastern areas of the ward, but they have begun to search in larger numbers for employment outside Spitalfields. The industrial and commercial character of the ward is being radically changed by forces beyond Bangladeshi control (see Forman 1989; Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989). Indeed, Samuel even speaks of “a holocaust which is about to wipe out their [Bangladeshi] tracks”: a transformation that conservationists have unwittingly encouraged and that now “threatens to engulf Spitalfields in a sea of Georgian fakes” (Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989: 170). Of course, the leaders of the mosque management committee may well believe that they can use this process to their material advantage by selling out and moving to an imposing, purpose-built center that might rival the East London Mosque. Through such a move, they would be able, perhaps, to escape the limitations of the present site and the debate about conservation and urban heritage. In the process, they might, of course, exchange one set of problems for another, as the experience of the East London Mosque in fact suggests.

Members of the mosque defended the Islamization of the site on the opponents’ own terms, insisting on their respect for “historical things” and denying “brutality.” The debate was, however, about more than wood panels. Architectural conservation is part of a more general, ongoing discussion about what it means to belong to the nation, whether defined as “England” or “Britain.” This discussion incorporates questions about the plural character of that nation and the part played by “ethnic minorities” in shaping that plural character as Britain engages in a rapidly changing Europe. If the former Huguenot chapel needed to be carefully preserved as a particular expression of a national heritage, how did that “sacred” imperative relate to another sacred imperative, the desire of those from an ethnic minority to adapt the building for ritual purposes? Issues of cultural pluralism have been equally at stake at the rival East London Mosque, whose leaders adopted a strikingly different strategy toward representing their Islamic presence in the borough.

The East London Mosque, the Call to Prayer, and Urban “Noise”

A London firm of architects designed the East London Mosque with Middle East models in mind. Its tall minaret is similar to those overlooking the “holy of holies,” the black rock, or Ka‘ba, in Mecca; its golden dome and high main entrance accord with popular concepts of what a mosque should look like (fig. 42). The mosque is intended to make a visual claim on “public space.” The mosque committee was determined from the outset, moreover, to remind local people of the building’s religious function as loudly as possible. As one of the few mosques in Britain permitted to broadcast calls to prayer (azan), the mosque soon found itself at the center of a public debate about “noise pollution” when local non-Muslim residents began to protest. The issue was eagerly taken up by the media at the national level, with reports in the Daily Mail (March 4, 1986) and the Daily Star (April 14, 1986). The controversy was fueled locally by an item in the weekly East London Advertiser that claimed that the mosque’s leaders wanted to increase both the volume of calls to prayer and their frequency from two to five daily, including “one in the early morning” (May 2, 1986). According to the article, the mosque request was supported by local Muslims. A “devout Muslim” in a neighboring street, for example, was reported as claiming that he could not hear the azan. He also wanted the call to be made five times “like in other Muslim countries” (ibid).

Figure 42. East London Mosque, Whitechapel Road, London. Photograph by John Eade.
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The reference to “other Muslim countries” indicated that some local Muslims did not locate the issue within a debate concerning “noise pollution.” Rather, they regarded it as an audible expression of their Islamic presence in the neighborhood, as well as of their links with the Muslim world at a more global level. Some felt, moreover, that opponents of the azan were in fact racist. Some letter writers to the East London Advertiser certainly expressed an intolerance associated with racial prejudice. Thus a writer, responding to a mosque representative, who mentioned the noise of local church bells, declared: “What bells? You hardly ever hear them these days. I’m sure I would sooner listen to the tolling of church bells than someone screaming out words I cannot understand and don’t want to” (East London Advertiser, April 25, 1986). The reference to “screaming” supported derogatory images of Muslim fanaticism, while a clear distinction was made between acceptable and unacceptable noise. Church bells were preferable because they were an expression of “our” cultural tradition—a tradition audibly challenged by the broadcasting of alien formulae. As in the debate on conservation, the conflict provided an occasion for constructing a definition of what was authentically English.

Yet this highly exclusive presentation was rejected by those whose churches were the symbols of the English national heritage. A group of local Church of England clerics wrote to the East London Advertiser (April 25, 1986) in support of the azan: “We have no complaint against their ‘calls to prayer’ and given all the other sounds of traffic, sirens, bells, people, trains and life in general [we] think that two short periods each day…are entirely reasonable.” The letter moved the discussion away from different types of noise to noise in general. Since the East London Mosque was located on a busy main road linking the City of London to the vast metropolitan eastern sprawl, the azan made only a brief, if novel, contribution to the buzz of inner city life. Of course, what the clergy considered “reasonable”—two calls to prayer during the working day—fell far short of the demand by the Muslim correspondent for the complete cycle of azan both day and night “like in other Muslim countries.” The borough council, the source of permission to the East London Mosque, had not extended that right to the other mosques in Tower Hamlets. Now, in response to the public furor over the broadcasts, it proved unmoved by arguments favoring the azan and neither extended the right to the other mosques nor allowed the East London Mosque to implement the full daily sequence of calls to prayer.

The opening of the highly visible and unmistakably Islamic East London Mosque thus very quickly resulted in a dispute articulated as “noise pollution” in a crowded inner-city neighborhood and focused by local government officials on presumably “objective” criteria, such as an agreed level of acceptable noise. Again, however, other issues were at stake. The letter writer who criticized the broadcasting of azan as alien, yet accepted (while noting its virtual disappearance) the tolling of church bells, was motivated by cultural exclusivism. This exclusivism was ironic given the ethnic history of Tower Hamlets and doubly so since it made the church bell a symbol of indigenous culture for an area whose predominantly working-class population had been either indifferent to religion or Nonconformists, Roman Catholics, and Jews. The only non-Muslim religious defenders of azan to find a voice in the local press were Anglican clerics, who were evidently unmoved by the nostalgic appeal to a symbol associated with them.

The controversy about “noise pollution” entailed issues of what was culturally acceptable. The leaders of the East London Mosque wanted to establish the azan, and the Muslim settlers, as part of the local culture. To this end, they were far more willing to engage openly in local politics and media controversy than their co-religionists at the Brick Lane mosque. Yet local politicians largely ignored their interests in order to reassure critics of azan. There are clearly powerful external constraints on Muslim self-expression in Spitalfields, as well as in other neighborhoods within the borough.

Among Muslims themselves, one might note, the new East London Mosque stimulated another debate, in this case about the building’s exotic design. (Some white residents may also have reacted to the new building on these grounds but there was no public debate.) K. Manzoor, features editor of a new journal, MuslimWise, argued that new mosques in general showed “little respect for the time-honored Muslim tradition of appreciating indigenous art forms in the attempt to ‘Islamize’ them…when the consummation of the ‘Islamic’ and the ‘regional vernacular styles’ took place it gave birth to new and exciting art forms that practically reflected the beauty of both.” He proceeded to exonerate “indigenous non-Muslims who look in horror at the dome-capped buildings we are erecting as they are as alien to them as they are to Islam. A good example of such monstrosity is the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. It is a cold, characterless, and impractical ‘wordprocessor,’ which is neither aesthetically nor spiritually attractive” (MuslimWise, December 1989). Manzoor included the most imposing and celebrated Islamic center in London—the Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent’s Park—in this charge.

Another Muslim critique questioned any concern with buildings at all. Indeed, according to Hajji Taslim Ali, the East London Mosque’s funeral director, who also undertakes missionary work for the Tablighi Jama‘at based in a former synagogue nearby, the attention paid to material objects such as mosques represents so much wasted effort. In his 1989 talk to a group of my students in the mosque’s prayer hall, he claimed that it was not important to have a beautiful building to pray in—rather one had to be a Muslim “from the heart.” As he showed us around the center, he drew attention, with a wry smile, to the building’s various defects and the costs involved in correcting them.

This issue was articulated at the Aga Khan Awards for architecture—meant to identify buildings that utilize a Muslim tradition yet relate to their specific context—held in Cairo during October 1989. The distinguished Egyptian architect Abdel Wahed el-Wakil discussed the “principle of sacred architecture” in the context of Islamic architecture and the “growing spiritual lack and need in the West.” At this point, a Moroccan economist, Professor M. Emandjara, “who had been swelling up with outrage finally blew up” and accused “El-Wakil of trying to transplant Western and Judaeo-Christian ideas about ‘sacred art’ into Islam. The whole point was that Islamic architecture was not sacred; the mosque was just a place for praying and teaching” (Observer, October 22, 1989). His, however, is a minority voice.

Mosques have clearly become places not only for prayer but for representation of the Muslim presence. The mosques in London’s East End have, in this regard, stimulated a wide-ranging debate. The debate implicitly addresses the symbolic significance of Islamic buildings in a predominantly non-Muslim country. Whether Islamizing a historic building or using a purpose-built center, Muslims have found themselves severely constrained by local economic and political forces beyond their control. Yet they did succeed in creating mosque congregations and, in the East London Mosque, a site that physically and audibly asserts the Muslim presence. Muslims outside the core areas of settlement in London have, however, faced forces arrayed against the establishment of an Islamic presence that sometimes proved more formidable.

Dawoodi Bohras in West London: Finding a Home

The borough of Ealing possesses a much smaller Muslim population than its East End counterpart.[3] Most Muslim settlers reside in the Southall area and originally came from Indian Punjab, Pakistan, and East Africa. The Sunni majority established two mosques during the late 1960s and early 1970s in Old Southall, and, during the early 1980s, the small business community of Dawoodi Bohras (a Shi‘a sect whose heartland lies in Gujarat) took over a former Jewish youth club in neighboring Boston Manor for its religious and cultural activities. The Bohra activities triggered off a series of events that exposed the racist nature of some white residents’ opposition to Muslim centers.

The Bohras’ use of the former youth club, which they renamed Mohammedi Park, soon led to protests from white neighbors about noise and parking during religious celebrations. At informal meetings between senior Conservative and Labour councilors and planning officials, it was agreed that the Bohras could use the site for social and religious functions. This consensus was, however, destroyed by pressure from white residents, who were supported by their local councilor (the chief whip of the Conservative majority group).

A new Labour administration took over the case after the 1986 elections and offered to buy the Boston Manor site in exchange for a more appropriate location. The Dawoodi Bohras eventually chose a disused industrial site in Northolt, several miles north of the Southall area. The site had been derelict for over five years and was spacious enough to allay any objections about noise and parking. The Bohras proposed to build a center for religious, educational, and social functions, as well as a number of houses—once again an indication of the wide range of activities associated with Muslim religious buildings in the diaspora in contrast to most South Asian mosques.

The plan again met with fierce opposition from white residents, however, as well as from local businesses using the industrial estate, their employees, and at least one real estate agent. Protests by white people at public meetings were so intense that there were councilors, officials, and Bohra representatives who left feeling physically intimidated. Nonetheless, in December 1988, the Bohras were given planning permission to develop the site.

Local press coverage of the Northolt development dispute made clear the racism in the opposition. A garbled report titled “Islamic Ghetto Worries” referred to a planning committee report that described local objections “to the ‘alien’ nature of the plan” and described the local claims about the area’s character: “Northolt is a ‘garden suburb’ and should not become another Southall. This is an alien development—an Islamic ghetto—and will lead to a racial imbalance. Integration, not separation, is required” (Ealing Gazette, November 25, 1988, p. 27).

The report sharply distinguished a green and pleasant Northolt and a ghettolike Southall. Northolt was purportedly at risk of becoming an alien “Islamic ghetto.” The opponents saw themselves not as racist but as proponents of a racially balanced, integrated society. As in the debates concerning conservation and noise, opponents believed themselves to be taking the moral high ground.

Yet hostile local residents in fact sought a racial imbalance in Northolt to keep the area exclusively or at least predominantly white. A local real estate agency colluded in fears that nonwhite settlement in Northolt would lead to a fall in property values by displaying a poster exhorting people to sign a local petition against the plan. The National Front and other ultra-rightist groups long active in Northolt also encouraged white hostility to “alien” settlers, and their supporters attended the public meetings that experienced serious violence. White protesters made the familiar claim that they were the ones suffering discrimination. As one protester put it: “They [the council] have called us racist but we are the ones being discriminated against. The council has treated us as second-class citizens” (Ealing Gazette, December 2, 1988, p. 7).

The local Labour leader, accused of betrayal (Ealing Gazette, November 18, 1988, p. 4), insisted that the Bohra proposal be dealt with in the context of bureaucratic and legal procedures. Again, the Anglican minister of the church distanced himself from local opponents to the Bohra scheme, saying, “The proper Christian response is to make welcome those from different cultural and religious backgrounds coming into the area” (Ealing Gazette, November 25, 1988, p. 27)—despite the fact that the residential association fighting the proposal had used a view of the church in its logo. Many local white residents ignored this liberal plea for tolerance and have continued to fight the redevelopment of the Northolt site through letters of protest to politicians and the Ealing Gazette and public demonstrations, particularly after the Conservatives regained control of the borough council in May 1989. A typical argument was that the mosque was proposed “on a job site in an area of high unemployment.” The Muslims were, moreover, outsiders, since “very few” Dawoodi Bohras “live locally and [they] have made it clear that they do not wish to be part of our close and friendly community” (Ealing Gazette, April 24, 1991).

Since I live very close to the Burhani Centre in Fulham, I have been able to observe local reactions to the Bohra presence in a different location. The center is close to a private housing estate in a predominantly white neighborhood, and judging by the odd broken window, it has not escaped damage in a relatively quiet locality. However, during the summers of 1989–92, when the Bohras used neighboring secondary schools for the kind of lengthy and lively celebration that caused so much hostility in Boston Manor, the events passed by without adverse local comment. Their presence in the Labour-controlled borough of Hammersmith and Fulham did not play a significant role in local politics, although it might well have done had they envisaged the kind of major redevelopment proposed in Northolt.

The position by early 1995 is that the development of the site is in full swing. Most of the main building has been constructed and the shells of the surrounding residential block are also complete. The High Court decision in November 1989 appears to have been decisive, and the Bohras’ strategy of working through the planning and legal process has been successful. The public protests, the ministrations of Conservative councilors, and legal action by Gallaghers, a tobacco company, which used an adjacent site on Rowdell Road, delayed the scheme for several years, but the sect has eventually been allowed to go ahead with building what was advertised as an “Arabic Academy Campus Project.”

Although local opposition has not prevented the Bohras from eventually developing the site, developments at a more global level have conspired to halt the completion of the project. Difficulties in collecting adequate resources have meant that there has been sufficient money available only to fund the completion of the foundations and the shell of the mosque. Work at the site ground to a halt during 1992, and the available money has been spent on the refurbishment of the Fulham Burhani Centre (fig. 43). In 1992, I met the leader of the Bohra community, who expressed satisfaction that at least the first stage of the Northolt development had been completed. The next step was to engage in a vigorous campaign among Bohras across the country to raise the millions of pounds needed to complete the grandiose Northolt scheme and to bring the Syedna, the leader of the Bohra community worldwide, from India to open the Arabic Academic Campus in full pomp and majesty. As of spring 1996, the site has not been completed, but its rose-pink domes and minarets are now visible; town houses have been built close by for community members; and the Prince of Wales, wearing cap and shawl, has planted a ceremonial tree (Guardian, March 20, 1996).

Figure 43. The Burhani Centre in Fulham, London. Photograph by John Eade.
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Islam and Definitions of Community in Local Political Arenas

The disputes described here represent a shift in the local politics of Tower Hamlets and Ealing. In the early 1980s, “white,” “black” and Asian activists united to seek community needs defined in secular and class terms—housing, education, jobs, and amenities. Now we find leaders focused on a range of needs specific to Muslims and establishing Muslim ritual and community space. The defeat of the Labour Party in the 1986 borough election and the abolition of the Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority were massive blows to the alliance between secular Bangladeshi activists and white radicals. Meanwhile, the growing shift to the deployment of an Islamic vocabulary in Bangladesh politics, particularly under Ershad, also fed into this new orientation.

In East London, debates in the local newspaper made Islam more visible to all. The debates strengthened the position of Bangladeshi activists who had criticized Bangladeshi Labour Party candidates in the 1986 borough elections for ignoring Islamic issues. Those claiming to represent “the Bangladeshi community” were under increasing pressure to declare at least a formal concern for the provision of Islamic facilities, as well as the championing of the rights of Bangladeshis in the areas of public houses, state education, jobs, and amenities.

In Ealing, the public debate about the use of space for Islamic purposes did not involve substantial numbers of local Muslim residents. The Dawoodi Bohras, a minute Shi‘a sect, were scattered over the metropolis and possessed no local political power base. Throughout the controversy, they refused to be drawn into making any public statements and relied on the operation of legal and bureaucratic structures and their informal links with powerful local councilors. It was therefore white activists rather than Muslims who used Islam, describing it as an alien invasion of local space and calling on Labour and Conservative political leaders to respond to what the activists claimed were the interests of local (white) residents.

Despite the differences between the social and political dynamics in two London boroughs, the media debates revealed a common theme—Islam as an alien threat to an indigenous, non-Muslim urban community and culture. The theme could be defined in terms of architectural heritage, the design of a building, or the call to prayer, and could engage both well-heeled gentrifiers and working-class “Cockneys” in a defense of “tradition.”

With the appearance of more purpose-built mosques and the articulation of “Islamic” needs in London and other urban areas, the kinds of issues described in this chapter may well become more common, and “Islam as alien threat” may well play a more significant role in local urban politics. The Islamization of local urban space is only one element in the public debate in Britain’s media about Islam, which The Satanic Verses controversy raised to a national level. Yet as the intensity of the feelings raised by the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book fades and Iran tentatively approaches Western powers, the public, physical manifestation of Islam at a local level continues to remind the non-Muslim majority in London and elsewhere of the Muslim presence and to provoke among some members of that majority at least a conscious reflection on local community and culture—a reflection linked to the articulation of identity, community, and culture at other levels, in particular to what it means to be “English” or “British” at the national level. As Bloul (this volume) suggests in the French case, there has been a process of double ethnicization here, of “Englishness” on the one side and “Islam” on the other.

Two points must be stressed: (1) the process is partial, and many people do not share in it, and (2) Islamic identity expresses itself in ways that are new, using new arguments (whether those of conservation or of British legal processes) and creating new kinds of institutions, such as centers. The mosque itself takes on new meanings, thanks in part to the political debates around its establishment and use in London. Outsiders unwittingly encourage those Muslims who wish to give the mosque, in Emandjara’s view, “a significance it shouldn’t have.” The local political arena therefore plays a key role in the construction of a range of meanings associated with being “Muslim” in London today—meanings that engage ethnicity, “race,” class, and national ideology, as well as Islam.


This essay is partly based on an earlier paper of mine, “The Political Articulation of Community and the Islamisation of Space,” in Religion and Ethnicity: Minorities and Social Change in the Metropolis, ed. R. Barot (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1993).

1. The Census confirms earlier estimates showing the rapid increase of the Bangladeshi population during the 1980s and its concentration in the western wards (Census Update, October 1992). See, e.g., Tower Hamlets 1987; Rhodes and Nabi 1992. [BACK]

2. See the East London Advertiser, November 27, 1970. The newspaper noted then that the alteration of the interior was already an issue. The reporter claimed that the “Pakistanis wanted to pull down the three inner galleries and Tuscan columns to provide the open space needed for their services.” However, it was also noted that the Greater London Council was “unlikely to favour this alteration to such an historic building.” Significantly, perhaps, the refurbishment took place after the demise of the Greater London Council. [BACK]

3. Local estimates claimed that of approximately 40,000 South Asian / East African settlers in a borough of over a quarter of a million residents, only about 5,000 were Muslims. Two mosques had been established in Old Southall, one of which has recently been refurbished and expanded in a more demonstrably Islamic mode. [BACK]

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——————. 1990. “Nationalism and the Quest for Authenticity.” New Community 16, 4: 493–503. UC-eLinks

——————. 1991. “The Political Construction of Class and Community: Bangladeshi Political Leadership in Tower Hamlets.” In Black and Ethnic Leaderships: The Cultural Dimensions of Political Action, ed. Pnina Werbner and Muhammad Anwar. London: Routledge. UC-eLinks

——————. 1992. “Quests for Belonging.” In Where You Belong: Government and Black Culture, ed. Alrick Cambridge and Stefan Feuchtwang. Aldershot: Avebury. UC-eLinks

Forman, Charlie. 1989. Spitalfields: A Battle for Land. London: Hilary Shipman. UC-eLinks

Game, Anne. 1991. Undoing the Social: Towards a Deconstructive Sociology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. UC-eLinks

Girouard, Mark, Dan Cruickshank, and Samuel Raphael. 1989. The Saving of Spitalfields. London: Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust. UC-eLinks

Metcalf, Barbara. 1982. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. UC-eLinks

Rhodes, Chris, and Nurun Nabi. 1992. “Brick Lane: A Village Economy in the Shadow of the City?” In Global Finance and Urban Living: A Study of Metropolitan Change, ed. Leslie Budd and Sam Whimster. London: Routledge. UC-eLinks

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Tower Hamlets. 1987. Tower Hamlets Health Inquiry Report. London: Tower Hamlets Community Health Council. UC-eLinks

Werbner, Pnina, and Muhammad Anwar, eds. 1991. Black and Ethnic Leaderships: The Cultural Dimensions of Political Action. London: Routledge. UC-eLinks

13. Engendering Muslim Identities

Deterritorialization and the Ethnicization Process in France

Rachel Bloul

Thanks to the massive postcolonial immigration that has taken place in recent years, France is today a state in which people are increasingly concerned with their collective identities as either “Maghrebi”/“Muslim” or “French.” It is important to see that this creation of politicized ethnic identities exists on both sides, not just that of the minorities. The process of “ethnicization” involves linking a specific population to distinctive cultural characterisics. The collective control of female behavior and the use of feminine representations is central to this process. In this regard, both French and Maghrebi men have contrasted the image of veiled Muslim women with that of presumed-emancipated second-generation “Beurettes” (the daughters of Maghrebi immigrants, called “Beurs”), notably in recent controversies over the right of Muslim schoolgirls to wear hair coverings in class. Some Maghrebi men have used this contrast to assert the need to protect Muslim interests, while some French have used the same images to arouse fears of the Muslim population. These issues have then become involved in contests for control over the public sphere.

The focus in this chapter is deliberately on men. Although women, and most notably Beurettes, have been involved in Maghrebi collective action in France,[1] they have been relatively invisible in contrast to men, who create a Muslim collective identity as generically male. Moreover, Frenchwomen are heard from but rarely in most public controversies. Men monopolized the earlier (1989–90) debate over the “veil.”[2] This situation is not unique, since it is possible to argue that cultural communities are generally “communities of males” (Appadurai 1990: 19). In the case of the Maghrebis/Muslims, this process of “engendering” ethnicity can be seen as an understandably intense response to the situation of a population no longer defined by their identification with a particular territorially defined entity.

A frequently heard comment, and self-definition, of Maghrebi men goes like this: “We are Muslims: our women don’t [go out alone, wear lipstick, etc.], unlike Frenchwomen, who do.” Frenchmen contribute to this claim to distinctiveness by making exactly the same distinctions about Muslim women. Maghrebi men who make such arguments are more likely to be involved in Muslim organizations with international connections and to disapprove of French government attempts to encourage a “French Islam.” They are thus more directly involved in an arena that makes issues of gender central in building a collective identity. As Helie-Lucas (1994) argues, there, too, men not only turn women into markers of collective identity but also make them the very stakes of cultural competition. In so doing, they claim to be able to speak for Islam (Bloul, forthcoming).

What is the relationship of Maghrebi “deterritorialization” to this use of “sexual politics”? As Arjun Appadurai (1990) argues, the increasingly integrated economic world-system and the dominance of Western media may not in the end be creating worldwide homogenization. “Global culture flows” may well create differences and an intensified sense of criticism or attachment to home politics in displaced populations. In this context, migrant communities, assaulted by the desires and fantasies depicted by the mass media, strive “to reproduce the family-as-microcosm of culture.” In these circumstances, “the honor of women becomes not just an armature of stable systems of cultural reproduction” but also increasingly “a surrogate for the identity of embattled communities of males” (Appadurai 1990: 19). This may produce violence against women, who become victims of men’s sense of displaced identity.[3]

Diversity Among Muslims in France

The self-understanding of Maghrebi migrants and second-generation Beur men is varied and complex, even if all see themselves primarily as Muslim actors in a “Christian” (Nasrani), or white (Gauri) country. It is critical to recognize this complexity before generalizing about the transition to gendered (and twin) ethnic identities that has taken place in recent years in France.

My arguments are based on local fieldwork in 1986–87, with a return visit in 1991, coupled with an analysis of the so-called “affair of the head scarves” over the right of Muslim schoolgirls to cover their heads. I worked in Mulhouse, a middle-sized industrial town in the northeast of France. Mulhouse has a high proportion of predominantly Maghrebi migrants, who are concentrated in the poorest surrounding suburbs, typical of the semi-ghettoized enclaves of postcolonial immigration in Europe (Belbahri 1987; Berger and Mohr 1982; Castles 1984, 1986; Jourjon 1980; Miles 1982). The distinguishing characteristics of Qsarheim, the neighborhood in which I primarily worked, was its grassroots association of household heads, formed on the initiative of one local Tunisian man in 1984, under the tutelage of various French officials and “personalities,” including the local mayor and the head of a housing company. Interestingly, a similar initiative was taken in the nearest Maghrebi neighborhood, Qsarstadt,[4] but there the association soon lost its impetus and became inoperative in less than a year. The French officials involved explained this in terms of Qsarheim’s “dynamism” and “will to effect changes,” in contrast to Qsarstadt’s “instability,” “population turnover,” “local rivalries,” and “lack of leadership.”

Maghrebis themselves had a different interpretation. They argued that Qsarstadt had a number (about a dozen at the time) of young, educated Maghrebi migrants, who came to Mulhouse to study in the local university and research center, and often participated in the Association des musulmans d’Alsace et de Lorraine, a Muslim organization known by its acronym, AMAL. AMAL is identified in the minds of many with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement based in Egypt. By contrast, the Qsarheim leaders were older, more settled, much less educated, and often belonged to mainstream Maghrebi associations organized along national lines: the Association des Algériens en Europe (AAE), the Association des travailleurs et commerçants marocains (ATCM), and the Association franco-tunisienne (AFT). Rumor attributed the collapse of Qsarstadt’s local association to infiltration by AMAL.

Each association wanted to build a leisure center under French government patronage, with the necessary funds being raised from a variety of contributors, including the town council; the housing estate; the Fonds d’action sociale (FAS) and Comité pour le logement des travailleurs immigrés (COTRAMI), specialized national agencies of migrant welfare; and local donations. In 1987, the Qsarstadt center had been built, but it soon passed under the control of COTRAMI. AMAL, referred to by both Maghrebis and French as the “Muslim Brothers,” took the lead in expressing resentment at the takeover. This did nothing to improve Qsarstadt’s reputation as an inhospitable politicized ghetto. By contrast, in spite of considerable internal difficulties (Bloul 1992), Qsarheim’s association survived. Qsarheim men were quite proud of the visible improvements in the neighborhood, although disaffection among the local youth drastically limited their ability to effect change, especially after a leadership crisis reduced their association to near paralysis.

Nonetheless, by 1991, not only had Qsarheim been prettified, but there was also a general feeling of more prosperity. There were fewer children playing in the streets, since, I was told, parents now sent their children to the various activities organized by the town council, “even if they had to pay.” More children of both sexes were encouraged in their studies and sent to university. To help with the costs, almost all mothers now worked, mostly part-time. This last bit of news was most surprising. Four years earlier, only four married women had worked (out of eighty-four Maghrebi families): they had tended to be younger and better educated than most, and they were subjected to not a little criticism. All the other women stayed at home and generally abided by the customary restrictions. In 1987, a married woman going out alone to shop at the local market too regularly used to raise censorious eyebrows. What had happened?

When I commented on these various changes and remarked that Qsarheim was getting to be quite undistinguishable from its French surroundings, people beamed at me and said that six or seven families had even quit the neighborhood to build their own homes in better suburbs. Their example had stimulated the remaining families. The generally more affluent feel was attributed to the fact that in most families, the father’s salary was now complemented by the earnings of the mother and one or two elder siblings.

The various changes suggested quite a shift in family strategies. There was little mention of the “dream to return,” of the house to build in the Maghreb. Instead, each family’s communal effort centered on improving their chances in France. What seemed most remarkable was the effect of this changed perspective on women’s positions. Over and over, people drew my attention to married women’s employment. Finally, they explicitly contrasted this with the fate of Qsarstadt, which, they told me, had become “quite fundamentalist”: most Qsarstadt women now “wore a veil” and their Leisure Center had “become a mosque.” Muslim proselytizers, some of my informants confirmed, had tried to “impose the veil here,” but without much success. When I inquired about the reasons for such “failure,” my female informants were categorical: husbands, they said, did not insist on the “veil” being worn, hence the “failure.” My observations confirmed this.

Qsarstadt women wore a bewildering array of costumes: some were in traditional Maghrebi dress, some in modest Western clothes with an “Islamic scarf,” and a few in the remarkable Egyptian fashion of the full, black neguab, in which only the eyes are uncovered. If the Leisure Center had not quite “become a mosque,” it nonetheless now housed a prayer room, and use of its facilities was sex segregated.

Meanwhile, Qsarheim’s center was mostly used by children and youth. Qsarheim’s association, almost moribund when I left in 1987, had divided into a renters’ association, composed of older Maghrebi men (all former members), and the association “Animation et cultures,” whose directing committee now included a few French social workers and educationists and two Beur youths. Although women were still excluded, the inclusion of two sons was an extraordinary concession on the part of older men jealous of their patriarchal privileges (Bloul 1992). It had been a battle, one son told me, but the older men were now reconciled to the change. The very different evolutions of two such similar neighborhoods should discourage easy generalizations about “the Muslim and/or Maghrebi presence” in France. The “affair of the veil,” in spite of the facile characterizations in some of the media, offered another such lesson.

The affair started as an incident involving three Maghrebi girls who refused to take off their head scarves in class in spite of the headmaster’s demands, and were henceforth refused entrance to the classrooms. This soon became a national controversy, which at its peak figured daily and prominently in all national media for two months until mid December 1989. Nor was “the affair” resolved then. Rather, it was abruptly silenced when the effects of its political exploitation became dramatically obvious: local elections in November 1989 registered a marked increase in support for the right-wing National Front (FN), which led the FN leader to make outrageous demands in its bid for power. This furious debate over females’ proper attire was dominated, almost monopolized, by men, both French and/or Muslims.

Women’s opinions were hardly ever heard. Mme Mitterand took a position in favor of the “veil” in the name of individual rights, a stance widely criticized as a political embarrassment to her husband. Some French feminists and female politicians belatedly opposed the veil, and their opinion was duly registered and forgotten (Le Monde, October 25, p. 14). Although the positions of a few well-known Muslim women (Mme Sebbar, Mme Tazdait) and of Beurettes’ associations were reported (ibid.; L’Express, November 3, p. 10), their arguments were not on the whole publicized and even less debated. Pride of place was given to prominent men’s views: French and Muslim male intellectuals, politicians, and religious representatives heatedly argued the vexed question of republican secularity as an ethnically neutral space. In addition, some Frenchmen delighted in defending Muslim women’s rights. In particular, the Freemasons, not particularly noted for their practice of gender equality, were the first to raise this issue.

Blurring the usual distinctions between Left and Right,[5] however, the question of women’s rights was quickly downplayed. The debate centered resolutely on secularity, the problems of immigration, the possible birth of a “French” (i.e., “democratic, secular, and privatized”) version of Islam, and the consequences of all this for French identity. What is most important, and has been little commented on, is that both French and Muslim professional opinion-makers took various positions for and against the veil in the name of the same values—that is, secularity and individual rights. For those in favor of the veil, secularity was a matter of “ensuring that everybody has a right to their own opinion, and to express it freely and safely. This right is only limited by the respect of the right of the other” (Cheikh Haddam, head, Paris Great Mosque, quoted in Le Monde, October 24, 1989, p. 16). For those opposing the veil, secularity meant the deliberate avoidance of any particularistic, symbolic inscription of institutional (republican) space, understood to be the only guarantee for tolerance and individual freedom. Thus, in a typical argument: “Displaying one’s minority group symbols against each [symbol] of the other groups [denotes] a logic...of intolerance and of ethnic exclusion, precisely the logic that the spirit of true secularity fights” (Cocq 1989: 2).

Opinion polls showed that French and Muslim public opinions in general coincided with the parameters set by the media debate. French people, for example, were not so much opposed to the veil per se (32 percent only opposed the wearing of the veil in the street) as to the veil as an ethnic marker in republican institutional space such as schools (75 percent against the veil in school). Second-generation Beurs showed the whole gamut of public positions for and against the veil in the name of secular values and individual rights, a result congruent with a marked gallicization of norms among Beurs (Bloul 1992). Among Muslims in general, women (49 percent) and older people (66.7 percent) were more opposed to the veil in school than men (42 percent) and youth (43.6 percent) (Le Monde, November 30, 1989, p. 14). Most Beurs defending the veil did so in the name of a specific understanding of secularity and individual rights as respect of differences, while older Maghrebis opposed it in the name of discretion.

Thus, the divisions among Muslims in France, although downplayed in general by the French media, were as great as among the native French population. In addition, most Muslims, whatever their positions, appealed to the same values (freedom and individual rights) that French opponents of the veil in school invoked, and that form the core of the dominant French public discourse on morality. Finally, one must add that in spite of the scale of the debate, no resolution emerged. Whether the “veil” was or was not to be allowed in school was deemed a question to be answered in each specific circumstance. In this case, the girls involved removed their scarves the following January (1990) after the king of Morocco demanded it of their father, to the embarrassment of a French government whose relations with King Hassan II were already strained.[6]

Notes Toward a Gendered Approach

The data above show the determining importance of male social actors. Whether French or Maghrebi, men used female attire and behavior as markers of a distinctive collective Islamic presence and identity—or as a way to blur distinctions. They also illustrate the divisions among Muslim/Maghrebi men. Finally, this account shows the appropriation of the dominant French moral vocabulary of freedom, secularity, and human rights to legitimate all the actors’ strategies, however different they might be. These common elements do not adequately describe whatever dynamic processes underlie the mutability of Muslim and Maghrebi realities in France, but they do offer a start.

Obviously, the different fates of Qsarheim and Qsarstadt are related to the different roles and circumstances of their leading men. Men in Qsarheim have come to believe that they can recreate a male social life for themselves through their association. In it, they have found, or believe they have found, some access to French public life and public recognition. They meet with the local mayor and “important” people, and the local newspapers write about them. These are significant and frequently cited signs of collective prestige. The men are also proud of the neighborhood renovations they have achieved.

These are men who came to France before the 1970s in hopes of bettering their socioeconomic status. They had no driving political or cultural goals, and for a long time they dreamed of return. They had throughout strong ties with the Maghreb, and most were members of the more traditional migrants’ associations, organized along national lines. When they slowly abandoned hope of making an economically successful return to the countries of their birth, taking into account the economic and political troubles in the Maghreb and their children’s gallicization, they focused on succeeding in France. All this spurred them to redirect family strategies toward integration, which involved women working to pay for their children’s studies. A few Qsarheim families had built their own houses in France rather than in the Maghreb, and this was a stimulus to others to attempt their own escape from the “Arab quarter.”

The Qsarstadt “leaders,” if not the bulk of the Qsarstadt population, differ in that they are younger men who came to Mulhouse primarily to study. They belong to Islamic associations whose programs include political reform in the Maghreb, as well as proselytizing among Muslims, and even to some extent among the ethnic French. They also maintain strong cultural and social ties to the Maghreb, and they have not necessarily ruled out the possibility of return; they perceive themselves as Muslims first and have a very strong sense of belonging to a transnational, not to say universal, Islamic space. Unlike the older migrants in Qsarheim, who often split into opposed parties along national divides, Qsarstadt leaders form friendships and alliances across national lines on the basis of their Muslim allegiance.

For the Qsarstadt leaders, no participation in French public space can occur at the expense of their Islamic identity. Unlike Qsarheim men, they make their Islamic distinctiveness a central component of their recognized identity. To that end, and in line with their mastery of the moral vocabulary of freedom and individual rights, they mobilize Islam, within the limited sphere of the French public scene, following the logic of minorities’ ethnic politics of “cultural difference.” This is a language familiar to them as students and semiprofessionals with a Westernized formal education.

This is not to say that this particular type of mobilization of Islam is their only, or preferred, strategy in other domains. It is simply that in their fight for self-recognition in France, Qsarstadt leaders, unlike Qsarheim men, have chosen to stress their Islamic distinctiveness, emphasizing an Islamic allegiance (over mere national ones) and identifying themselves as members of an educated transnational Muslim elite. And one of the ways in which they mark their collective difference is through their women’s distinctive appearance in public, which is all the more remarkable in that few of these men themselves display any distinctive signs of their Muslim allegiance. Few wear beards, and they dress more in track suits, jeans, leather jackets, and casual Western attire than in white robes, which I have seen only the imam wearing. They are not alone in using women as markers of collective identity: as noted above, a common Maghrebi self-definition asserts: “We are Muslims, our women behave/look this way.”

Maghrebi women have some autonomy, but their individual freedom of choice, their margins of action, are severely limited precisely because they are in the position of individuals facing collective social might, whether French or Maghrebi. The three schoolgirls of the veil affair illustrate this most pertinently. They were presented by supporters of the veil as independent moral actors, but by detractors as the puppets of either patriarchal tyranny or religious militants. Two cartoons illustrate the pressure presumed to impinge on them from a father in one case (fig. 44) and from a trio of powerful French and Muslim males—the “ayatollah,” the headmaster, and the prefect—in the second (fig. 45). Ironically, the monopolization of the debate by men, whether French or Maghrebi, questions their autonomy just as much as their abandonment of the scarf after Hassan II’s intervention with their father. The acrimony of this male political debate over female attire clearly points to the collective stake at the heart of this particular bout of sexual politics, namely, the role and use of women in the constitution, and public display, of collective identities. Why else would three scarves threaten French identity and values or assert Muslim ones? Control over women is also a brutal affirmation of the genderization of such collective identities, whether French or Maghrebi, as generically male.

Figure 44. “Are you for or against the veil [le voile] at school?” Le Monde, November 7, 1989.
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Figure 45. “Here are the ayatollah, the headmaster, and the prefect back again to find out what you are wearing today!” Le Monde, November 7, 1989, p. 1.
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The Gendered Politics of Representation in a Multicultural Context

Feminists have long argued that collective identities are androcentric. Julia Kristeva (1989), for example, argues that collective identities are produced along a logic of masculine identity formation that includes rejection of some “other” and stresses the control, if not the suppression, of differences within.[7] As far as Western cultures are concerned, many feminist analysts have expressed their suspicion of “substitutionalist universalism,” inasmuch as they detect male, middle-class, white men profiled behind the equal individual of democratic discourse (Benhabib 1986; Fraser 1989; Love 1991). Similarly, the case for the androcentric mold of the Islamic ummah has been made repeatedly by Muslim feminist scholars (Abrous 1989; Ait Sabbah 1986; Jowkar 1986; Lazreg 1988; Mernissi 1983, 1987). This argument is at the core of my understanding of the gendered politics of representation as illustrated in the male public debate about female attire.

In this case, deterritorialization brought about by Maghrebi postcolonial immigration raises the problems of the cultural reproduction of identity and values, not only for Maghrebis facing possible gallicization, but also, I would argue, for the French, whose territory now contains “strange foreigners,” to paraphrase Kristeva (1989: 274–77). Because of the gendered dynamics of collective identity, deterritorialization has specific consequences for both French and Maghrebi men, as male vehemence during the affair of the veil so aptly demonstrates.

The affair challenged patriarchal and fratriarchal understandings of gender roles and identities. In this particular instance, Maghrebi fathers and religious hierarchies were joined by Catholic and Jewish clerics who demonstrated unreserved support for the veil. Together they opposed the free circulation of women in the fraternal and secular French Republic. Those among the second-generation Beurs hoping to join the French fraternity (such as Arezki Dahmani of France-Plus), however, supported a strict interpretation of secularity. Others, less confident of their place in France or more involved in a process of ethnicization, defensively supported the veil and their right to “difference” in protecting “their women.” For them, Islam has become the main resource and guarantor of a marginalized and ethnicized androcentric collective identity (Bloul 1992), and Muslim women have become the privileged site for the affirmation and display of such identity, quite apart from any individual decision women may make. Frenchmen’s responses betray their understanding of this collective use of women. As Qsarstadt and Qsarheim men are also well aware, the existence of “veiled women” in the French public space—whatever the motive—is perceived by Frenchmen as a Muslim male challenge to their own control of French republican fraternal space.

In this regard, the disruptions of masculinity brought about by deterritorialization are aptly captured, for the French side, by the particularly polysemic caricature shown in figure 46. The ugly, old, neutered Catholic nun is an obvious reference to the convergence of views of religious leaders of all denominations in favor of the veil. The nun stands for the old religious and patriarchal orders as seen from a modern French male point of view: denying access to women in the name of the old orders is out. The glamorization of the Muslim student is counterfactual, as a photograph of the students suggests (fig. 47). But it reveals what the unconscious stakes are: the unsupportable presence of forbidden women on the collective male territory of republican institutions. This is an old theme in the history of French/Maghrebi colonial relations, here given a new postcolonial twist.

Figure 46. “Give them this…they want this!” Le Canard enchainé, October 25, 1989.
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Figure 47. Two students at the Collège Gabriel-Havez de Creil, Oise.
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The presentation of both the nun and the sexy Muslim student as active agents is also counterfactual. While the caricatured nun is a classic example of scapegoating (the victim as oppressor), such presentation of the hypersexualized young Muslim woman as an autonomous actor is more complex. The cartoon is obviously addressed to the French viewer as paradigmatically male. It is also a deliberate attempt to enlist the sympathy of young Beurettes, quite congruent with the “chivalrous” position taken by most Frenchmen in the debate, who suddenly became champions of women’s rights. By fantasizing young Muslim women as autonomous actors (while denouncing their subjection!), it establishes with them an imagined alliance in the ridiculing of the old, repressive patriarchal orders represented by a nun (rather than an imam). Thus the French male viewer can fantasize complicity with a forbidden postcolonial object of desire. Finally, this fantastic seduction is staged without compromising a remarkably persistent misogyny, quite congruent with the more habitual exclusion of women from French republican fraternal space.

The Gallicization of Maghrebi Values and the Ethnicization of Islam

As noted above, every (male) participant in the debate over the “Islamic scarves,” whatever his origins or opinions, invoked freedom, secularity, and individual rights as supportive arguments for or against the veil. The preeminence of this particular moral vocabulary, however French or indigenized its widely different interpretations might be, is an extremely interesting, if often ignored, fact. Nor is that moral vocabulary limited to the various Maghrebi, Muslim, and French social commentators with access to the media. Qsarstadt men defend their right to cultural difference and often make Islam part of their ethnic Muslim identity in the name of their inalienable rights as equal individuals. Cheikh Haddam’s argument, quoted above, in favor of veiling because “secularity is about ensuring that everybody has a right to their own opinion, and to express it freely and safely” articulates a very similar position. This comment effectively reduces Islam to the mere “opinion” of atomized individuals. This is a peculiarly ironic product of the global cultural flow. It has produced the Qsarstadt leaders as an embryonic transnational Muslim elite, yet has fostered the gallicization/Westernization of Maghrebi children in France.

Qsarheim men also use this vocabulary, although they are more skeptical. For them, freedom and individual rights are specific French values (as opposed to Maghrebi practices), which Maghrebi men in France can and should use to their advantage. But such reasoned application is characteristically specific and contextualized. “We are in France now. We must do things in the correct democratic way,” a Qsarheim association president said to restore procedural order to a committee discussion that had become personal and heated. “There is freedom here…freedom is dangerous for those not used to it. Moroccans in France tend to abuse their [newfound] freedom and go bad,” a Moroccan father said. The same reasoning was applied by men to Maghrebi women: they couldn’t have the same freedom as Frenchwomen because, not being used to it, they would “exaggerate” if not under the firm restraint of Maghrebi men.

As for the younger Beurs, they characteristically show a marked gallicization of their moral understanding and practices, albeit quite limited and circumscribed in relation to the status of Maghrebi women and of Islam as guarantor of an androcentric Beur collective identity (Bloul 1992). This preeminence of the moral vocabulary of freedom and individual rights permeates the whole discussion of the modernization of Islam in France. Just as even the most gallicized Beurs affirm their allegiance to Islam (Bloul 1992), very few, if any, Maghrebi men’s understanding of their faith is uninfluenced by the (French) public moral discourse of universal individual rights, although such influence does not extend to the discriminatory consequences of sexual politics, as has been documented above. But then, as feminist critiques of substitutionalist universalism show (see above), Frenchwomen also must bear the effects of similarly discriminatory sexual politics. Thus, siding with some French proposals about a “French Islam,” Beurs sometimes propose a model of gallicized Islam characterized as democratic, secular, and privatized (Kaltenbach 1991). Relevant to this also are a number of government initiatives, most notably the establishment of a consultative Islamic body, the Conseil de réflexion sur l’Islam en France (also noted in Diop and Michalak, this volume). Others argue that a fundamental rereading of Islam would purify it of historical misconceptions, since Islam is in fact compatible with the key democratic concepts of equality and solidarity. Many have more nuanced positions and consider the basic texts of Islam, not as absolute guidelines for modern everyday life, but as requiring sophisticated exegesis (Arkoun 1986). Such developments characterize the central paradox of Islamic renewal in France as it simultaneously engages globalization (or is it gallicization?) and ethnicization.

Conclusion: on Ethnic Revivals and Androcentric Cultural Processes

Qsarstadt leaders, and others, ethnicize Islam as a Maghrebi attribute in France, while simultaneously proselytizing for Islam as an alternative universalism. This localized strategy, like those revealed by the debate on “difference” generated around the affair of the veil, appears to be the ironic by-product of the deterritorialization resulting from global cultural flows—in this case, the transnational migration of Maghrebi Muslims and their adoption of the key French politico-moral concepts of equality, freedom, and secularity. The French also contribute to such processes. Such processes and strategies operate within the parameters set by the gendered politics of representation according to which women are both markers and stakes for androcentric collective identities. Not only in France but in many instances of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, a similar paradox between the globalization of the Islamic ecumene and the ethnicization of the relevant Islamic communities exists and is also to be understood in the context of the gendered politics of identity.

The final ironic result of the gendered politics of representation in a multicultural context is the effect on the host population. In this particular case, French perceptions of “an internal Islamic threat” have led to another ethnicization process—namely, the ethnicization of French identity, most crudely and powerfully expressed in the demagogic discourses of the National Front, which raises as a symbol a singular collage of Gaulish Christianity. The anxious interrogations of French identity and cultural values that have multiplied recently in France are another symptom of the push toward this dual ethnicization process. The affair of the veil acted as a catalyst for such discussions. The range of these discussions, from affirmations of ethnocentrism to a revisitation of universalist ideals, allows one a slender hope that such twin processes of ethnicization might be counteracted. This cannot be done successfully, however, if the gendered nature of the processes of cultural reproduction is not understood.


1. Beur collective action made its first national impact in 1983 when several hundred Beurs and Beurettes marched through France to Paris to protest against racist incidents (Bouzid 1984; Jazouli 1986). Beurettes played an important role, although relatively few in number, and some have been politically active ever since. One, Mme Djida Tazdait, has been elected to the European Parliament. [BACK]

2. The situation has somewhat changed since the resurgence of the debate in 1994, when the then minister for education, François Bayrou, expressly forbade the wearing of “conspicuous symbols” of group identity in the republican institutional space of the schools. When a number of adolescent females protested against what they perceived as discrimination, French media depicted them as “manipulated by extremist groups” and “blind” to the Islamist danger to themselves as women and to the advantages of liberal French gender arrangements. I have argued elsewhere that this contemporary French defense of Muslim women’s rights echoes the French colonial “sexual politics” of penetration in Algeria (Bloul 1995). [BACK]

3. Appadurai’s use of gender shows how unreflectively he associates gender and women: he mentions gender only in relation to women as victims of (increased) male violence resulting from certain deterritorialization effects. This derivative use robs the concept of gender of much of its analytical potential vis-à-vis “the cultural politics of deterritorialization.” [BACK]

4. Both names are pseudonyms. [BACK]

5. The rightist opposition delighted in taking an unusual position for women’s rights. The parties of the Left and the usual antidiscrimination associations, as traditional supporters of women’s rights (in lieu of France’s very weak feminist organizations) and of minorities, were in an ambiguous situation, which produced belated attempts to diffuse the question as much as possible. [BACK]

6. Hassan II of Morocco opposed François Mitterrand’s vague desire to give immigrants the right to vote. He had also been considerably offended by the publication in France of a book and various articles denouncing Moroccan human rights failures. [BACK]

7. Another version of this argument (Bloul 1992) is partly inspired by the works of Chodorow (1978, 1989), Fox-Keller (1984), and Pateman (1988). [BACK]

Works Cited

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