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Preface and Acknowledgments
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Preface and Acknowledgments

This volume has emerged from a project of the Joint Committee on the Comparative Studies of Muslim Societies, a committee of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council.[1] Over a number of years, the committee initiated several workshops and conferences intended to elucidate the experiences and institutions that various Muslim societies shared. One perspective that shaped several meetings was that of studying societies in contexts likely to produce new emphases and interpretations of Islamic symbols and institutions and, in some cases, self-conscious articulation of those changes. Travel, migration, and the experience of living in plural societies were among those contexts.[2] Like many people currently engaged in cultural studies, we deliberately moved away from an approach that had sought (what were often illusory) “pure” societies or texts as an object of study in favor of contexts of heterogeneity and change, the “borderlands” that could be seen as “sites of creative cultural production” (Rosaldo 1989: 208).

Muslims in North America and Europe have typically experienced cultural displacement, whether through migration to a largely non-Muslim area or, in the case of many African-American Muslims, through conversion, that places them in the kind of borderland likely to illuminate cultural processes. As a way of understanding Muslim cultural practices in this new arena, the essays of this volume utilize the theme of “space.” They examine the use of space, claims on space, the architecture of built forms, and conceptualizations of space.

This volume, in short, offers a picture of Muslim life quite different from the political, or “fanatical,” one often presented in the media and, indeed, in many scholarly works. Even an article written to enhance “Muslim-Christian understanding” speaks of the “hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have invaded [my emphasis] Western Europe at an increasing rate” (Ferre 1985). Some Muslims have challenged these anxieties: the president of the Islamic Society of North America, for example, who urged that Muslims be viewed as a community “of solutions, not a constituency of problems” (New York Times, September 3, 1990); or M. Arezki Dahmani, the president of France Plus, who, in a much-quoted phrase, has urged that immigrants be viewed as “une chance pour la France comme la France est une chance pour eux” (Le Monde, July 31, 1991). However regarded, what is incontestable is that all our societies are increasingly plural, and that we need to understand that pluralism from the perspective of all the participants.

The volume begins with a focus on everyday life, above all on the “sacred words and sanctioned practice” discussed in the introduction below, which are often not readily visible to outsiders. This emphasis continues into the second part of the book, but now in a context of interaction, often contestation, with the larger society. This approach directs us to central themes in Muslim cultural life, to the matrix within which cultural change is negotiated, to the behaviors that sustain cultural reproduction, and to significant commonalities among Muslims in areas scattered across the globe.

Muslims in North America and Europe embrace a great range of peoples, from migrants from old Muslim areas to recent converts, who may be industrial laborers, highly educated professionals, students, or others. Without wishing away the deprivation, racism, and prejudice that are realities for many, these essays emphasize the cultural strength, creativity, and inventiveness that are equally real. The focus on space directs us to real people in real settings and at the same time lets us glimpse something of imagined places as well: new Medinas, new Toubas, new Karbalas, and possibilities that range from Alevistan to a Muslim Europe. As nation-states lose some of their role as a totalizing force in their citizens’ lives, new boundaries and new kinds of consciousness clearly now emerge: these Muslim populations offer one concrete example of these changes.

Our hope is that this volume—even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair, beginning in 1988, and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993—will provide some fresh, nonstereotypical ways of thinking about Islam and, more specifically, of thinking about Muslims, who, in an infinite variety of ways, enlarge the global space of which we are all part.

It is a pleasure to thank many people who have contributed to this volume. Thanks above all to the ACLS/SSRC and, through them, to the Ford Foundation, which provided support to the joint committee. At the SSRC, David Szanton served as midwife, or maybe progenitor, to the committee when it was launched in 1984 and continued as staff to the committee through its first half-dozen years. No one played a greater role than he, both in practical terms and in vision, in sustaining the committee over these years, and his faith in this project, for example, was crucial. Since this project, one might argue, was his last with the council before he moved on to Berkeley, we wish the volume to be dedicated to him and his exemplary role in international studies.

William Roff and Lila Abu-Lughod, as successive chairs of the committee, played similarly invaluable roles. Bill in particular was responsible for convening a one-day workshop (September 18, 1988) that focused on African-American Muslims, one of the building blocks on which this project was built. Thanks to Al Hajj Muzaffar Ahmad Zafar, Aminah Beverly McCloud, Dawadu Haneef Abeng, Kamal Hasan Ali, Mark Brown, Muhammad Abd Al-Rahman, and Yusuf Nuruddin for their participation on that occasion. Committee meetings organized by Gilles Kepel in Paris (December 1987) and John Eade in London (June 1990) gave us opportunities to visit Muslim sites and neighborhoods in those cities. Committee members held two one-day workshops specifically to plan for this conference, joined on both occasions by David Lelyveld and on the second by Talal Asad and Aslam Syed, in addition to Akbar Muhammad, Beverly McCloud, Gulzar Haider, and Susan Slyomovics, who offered oral presentations of their work.

From November 1–4, 1990, we held the final conference of the project. Our thanks for additional support for that meeting to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and particularly to Hasan Uddin Khan and Ahmet O. Evin. Special thanks too to the Middle East Center at Harvard and its director, William Graham, also a member of the joint committee, who were our excellent hosts. Additional commentators and paper presenters, beyond those included in the volume, were Lila Abu-Lughod, Ali Asani, Felice Dassetto, Oleg Grabar, Heidi Larson, David Lelyveld, Roy Mottahedeh, Azim Nanji, and William Roff, whose presentations and comments inform what is offered here.


1. Members of the Joint Committee in 1990–91 included William R. Roff (Emeritus, Columbia University), chair; Lila Abu-Lughod (New York University), Richard Bulliett (Columbia University), Christian Decobert (Institut Français d’Archaelogie Orientale, Cairo), Ali Hilal Dessouki (University of Cairo), William Graham (Harvard University), Muhammad Khalid Masud (Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad), Barbara D. Metcalf (University of California, Davis), and M. Nazif Shahrani (Indiana University). [BACK]

2. A first fruit of these meetings has been published, with papers organized around the themes of doctrines of travel; travel accounts; pilgrims and migrants; and saints, scholars, and travel (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990). Additional volumes are forthcoming: one on fatwas,Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and their Fatwas, edited by David Powers, Brinkley Messick, and Khalid Masud (Harvard University Press); a second on the Tablighi Jama‘at (based on a conference held at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, June 1990), being edited by Khalid Masud; and a third on transnational da‘wa organizations based on a conference organized by James Piscatori (Aberystwyth, October 1992). [BACK]

Works Cited

Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori, eds. 1990. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. London: Routledge; Berkeley: University of California Press. UC-eLinks

Ferre, A. January 1985. “The Role of Migration in the Expansion of the Muslim Faith.” In Encounter: Documents for Muslim-Christian Understanding. No. 111. Rome: Pontifico istituto di studi arabi e d’islamistica. UC-eLinks

Riding, Alan. 1991. “France Sees Integration as Answer to View of Immigrants as ‘Taking Over.’ ” New York Times, March 24. UC-eLinks

Rosaldo, Renato. 1989. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press. UC-eLinks

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