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Imagining Muslim Space

The imagined maps of diaspora Muslims, and the definition of centers and peripheries, like the identities they help focus, may also be multiple and may well vary in different times and contexts. Mecca, usually coupled with Medina, is, of course, for all Muslims a transcendent center (not to be confused with contemporary Saudi Arabia, which is to some Muslims anathema and not a center at all). But the West may also be seen as a center, as many of the essays included here suggest, by reason of the positive value placed on new homes in largely non-Muslim settings—value that is not merely worldly but is linked to deep religious aspirations.

Werbner, for example, shows Muslims deeply involved in life in two countries, Britain and Pakistan. The Manchester Sufis are tied to their current place of abode and employment as well as to the Pakistan mountain setting of their Sufi shrine, a site that is neither their birthplace nor a locus of family ties. Both, Werbner argues, are part of their larger “global sacred geography.” While the Kohat shrine holds special charisma for them, Manchester has also become a site of spiritual power. Both places have been subsumed under the powerful metaphor of “tamed wilderness” through the efforts of a holy saint and performative ritual acts, especially zikr. Katy Gardner’s recent work similarly shows how, to Sylheti peasants at home, Britain, a site of material gain linked with a shift to more rigorous Islamic practice, has now become “the sacred center” at the expense of once charismatic Sufi shrines (Gardner 1995). Comparisons in Europe’s favor also come from newly observant Tunisians, who speak with disapproval of a secular state committed to such “modern” symbols as the Tunisian president eating on television during Ramadan in the interests of industrial productivity. Similarly, they come from Turks who have chosen to abandon Kemalist secularity.

Muslim intellectuals in the diaspora have articulated a heroic role for themselves and their communities. The late Fazlur Rahman, suspect for his modernism in Pakistan and long a professor in the United States, for example, explicitly expected Islamic renewal to come from Muslims in the West, and he himself set such a pattern in his own work. Khalid Duran (1990) has recently made the same point, mentioning by name such Islamists as Bassim Tibi, Smail Balic, and Muhammad Arkoun, a list to which one could add Seyyid Husain Nasr and others based in America and Europe. Zaki Badawi has expressed the same confidence in Islamic intellectual life in the West, convinced that the most profound formulations will come, not from the United States, where life is too easy for Muslims (cf. Haddad and Lummis: ch. 3); not in Britain, where he himself is based; but in France, where Muslims will be challenged by the hardness of life, the deep-held convictions of republican secularism, and the depth of racism (oral communication, 1991). Badawi himself, with the patronage of the Libyan Call Society, has established a college in London to train a new class of Islamic leadership, freed of national traditions, educated in European cultures, and trained in the technologies of new media (Badawi, n.d.).

In describing the choice to reside in non-Muslim territories, certain terms resonate, notably hijra and the always linked term of jihad(see Masud 1990). Various ideas about these terms coexist. Hijra may long have been understood as movement from a land where one could not lead an Islamic life, typically one of non-Muslim rule, to a land ruled by Muslims. Today, it can continue to mean physical movement, this time from a land of Muslim settlement, but of poverty, to a non-Muslim land of greater opportunity. It is this kind of migration that the late Isma’il al-Faruqi addressed, arguing that a hijra can only be justified if understood as a providential opportunity for Muslims to lead other people to Islam and ultimately to reform Islam among Muslims as well (al Faruqi 1985).

Hijra today is also construed as psychic and moral withdrawal, whether from support for governments only nominally Muslim (as in the well-known case of the Egyptian Islamist party, Takfir wa’l Hijra) or in one’s personal life from practices deemed not Islamic. Jihad similarly takes on a range of meanings, derived from its root, “effort,” in corporate and individual commitments of various kinds.

A theme articulated by an engaged observer of Muslims in Australia runs through the essays presented here: “While many, perhaps most, migrants, would see economic betterment, or other non-religious factors, for their decision to migrate, many eventually begin to see the maintenance and strengthening of their Muslim identity and commitment, some even see da‘wa, as [their] important or primary roles” (Ahmad Shboul, personal communication, 1989). This has been the argument of influential thinkers associated with Islamist movements such as the Jama‘at-i Islami, notably in the writings of Khurram Murad, who was educated in the United States and has long been resident in Britain; his writings include Islamic Movement in the West (1981) and Da‘wah among Non-Muslims in the West (1986). Others, like Muzzamil Siddiqui, who has been an active religious leader in California, have insisted that any residence in “Dar ul Kufr,” the “Place of Infidelity,” should be temporary and for some limited objective like training or travel; but this seems to be a minor voice (Poston 1992: 81–90; 32). The challenge of creating communities in new settings, the creation of new Islamic institutions and networks, and the embrace and elaboration of practice and ritual have all been evident, not for all, but for many, of those Muslims who find themselves in the new political, economic, and cultural settings of the West.

In all this, we see Muslims negotiating relationships with other Muslims and non-Muslims in ways that forge communities of larger or smaller scale among those who share loyalty to sacred texts and symbols. This community means that even in situations of hardship like prisons and prisonlike foyers, Muslims are able to speak—in spatial metaphors—of “places of safety” (Diop, this volume) and “islands of knowledge” (Dannin, this volume) apart from the society as a whole that surrounds them.

To return to mosque architecture, in some of the best examples we can find an emblem of diaspora Islam as distinct both from the homeland and the surrounding culture. The builders of Manhattan’s new mosque, reflecting in architecture what some have sought for Islam as a whole, have eschewed what might be seen as design characteristics of particular national architectural styles (fig. 4). Shaped by the specific functions needed of a mosque, and drawing on the classic Islamic aesthetic fascination with geometry, the mosque design overlaps with many characteristics of contemporary taste. But in its grassy setting, skewed some 29;dg from the Manhattan street grid to have the proper orientation, the mosque asserts its Islamic distinction. In the judgment of one architectural critic, “the mosque is an island, self-possessed, hewing to a rhythm different from Manhattan’s…its gently sloping, grassy site stand[ing] apart” (Dunlap 1992).

Figure 4. The Mosque of New York at Third Avenue and Ninety-sixth Street, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Photograph Chester Higgins, Jr. / New York Times, April 15, 1991.
[Full Size]

From Muslims in the West, we learn much about how Islam, like any historic tradition, exists in the process of redefinition and reappropriation in new contexts. In the situations of cultural displacement or marginality in which these populations find themselves, characteristic Islamic themes and processes of cultural negotiation are thrown into particularly high relief. In seeing this, moreover, we witness the vitality, variability, and creativity of populations who, in large part, live in settings characterized by racism, prejudice, and grim material realities. As we look at the specifically Islamic spatial expressions of these communities—the use of space, claims on space, the architecture of built forms, and conceptualizations of space—we encounter both patterns of everyday life and themes of the religious imagination, broadly construed.

Many observers have sought to interpret that identity through comparison to other groups marked by migration and/or religion. Dervla Murphy (1987), for example, looks to the historic experience of her fellow Irish in the north of England as the model for the South Asian Muslims in Britain today, for both groups were consigned to the drab settings of old industrial towns and both disparaged for cultural and religious difference. The Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, in a publication of historic photographs of immigrant groups to the city (1987), partly by juxtaposition of similar photographs (Ukrainian boarding house / Bengali boarding house) insists on a common pattern—now framed by the concept of “multiculturalism,” where cultural equivalences of institutions, festivals, and so forth are meant to form a harmonious whole. In the French context, Rémy Leveau (1988) has found what seem to be compelling similarities to the experience of Jews in the case of North African Muslims.

This hopeful, liberal, perspective (put at risk, Leveau suggests in his case, by contemporary French attitudes) has been questioned by some, not on the grounds of Muslim “difference,” but on the basis of what actually happened in the past. Thus, Albert Bastanier, studying the Muslim population in Belgium, wonders if the assimilation of earlier immigrants entailed “mutilation,” or if somehow an “underground” identity persisted: “Awareness of these matters required the experience of the immigration from Muslim countries” (Bastenier 1988: 134). In fact, however, the past is not an adequate guide to the present—let alone the future. The reason for that difference is not specific to Muslims.

Muslims represent a striking case of what might be called postmodern pluralism. Today’s world is one of utterly transformed communications, so that groups can at times be enmeshed in more than one country—Hispanics in the United States—or be so engaged with an ethnic or interest group—activist Sikhs, Greens—that their closest ties are to others like themselves, transcending states. The postmodern dissolution of certainties also means that assimilation and integration may no longer be perceived, even by the majority, as unquestioned goods.

The Muslims studied here are immersed in deep affective and informational networks of personal ties, organizations, and political concerns that define diverse and far-flung maps; at the same time, they are resident in nation-states whose own contours are ever more fluid. Their experiences of cultural displacement, their negotiations of hybridity and authenticity, are at the heart of contemporary life.[17] We do not know what patterns will finally emerge, but we are convinced of the importance of this moment, captured, as best we are able to do, in the words and images that follow.

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