Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.


Diaspora Muslims and “Space”

The essays in this volume explore aspects of the religious life of the new Muslim communities in North America and Europe, communities largely made up of immigrants and their offspring, and, in the case of African-Americans, converts.[1] In the United States and Canada, the immigrant Muslim populations have been dominated by professionals and have formed a relatively small proportion of the population, probably some three to four million people. The African-American population, probably at most about one million, while including some members who are among the educated and steadily employed, often represent the less privileged, not least the prison population discussed in one essay below. On the whole, political concerns about a Muslim presence have been muted in North America, the one exception being the alarm about Muslims at the time of the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

In France and Britain, by contrast, and to some degree in Germany, largely working-class Muslim populations have been a major issue in public life. In France, Islam is regularly described as the “second largest religion,” after Catholicism, its adherents numbering some four to five million. The Muslim populations in Britain and Germany, although fewer than in France, are more visible than in North America, in part because of their more concentrated settlements, and have also been much discussed in public life. These populations also vary in their countries of origin. Muslim immigrants from the Indian subcontinent (including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) have predominated in the populations in Britain itself and in Canada. Muslim immigrants in France have been largely from North Africa and, to a lesser degree, French West Africa; those in Germany, from Turkey. A recent estimate puts the number of Muslims in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia at more than twenty million (Robinson forthcoming).

Many Muslim migrants came originally as industrial workers, beginning in the 1950s; by the early 1970s, many began to settle with their families. Since then, not only have many Muslims been attempting to sustain and reproduce distinctive cultural values in a non-Muslim setting, they have also, in many cases, been doing so in the company of fellow Muslims whose practices originated in homelands different from theirs. These diaspora Muslims now find themselves in countries that vary demographically, economically, and juridically. Despite this variety, their shared experiences have produced some commonalities in their engagement with the Islamic tradition and their modalities of creating late-twentieth-century communities. They have, moreover, not negotiated such issues in isolation: Muslims today are tied together globally through a range of institutions and media that further suggest the appropriateness of studying this “diaspora” as a single phenomenon. There are, of course, new Muslim communities outside North America and Europe—in Australia, for example. And “old” communities, as will be clear in many of the essays below, are engaged in many of the same processes as the new. Nonetheless, the particularities set up by the new Muslim presence in the “West” seemed to us sufficient to justify its study on its own.

As for singling out the “Muslim” identity of these groups, we do so, of course, without assuming that anyone labeled Muslim focuses wholly on Islamic cultural expressions in place of all other loyalties. For some, other networks, such as class or professional organizations, have proven more important. This has at times, for example, been the case with groups ranging from embattled “blacks” in Britain to wealthy professional or business groups among Iranians in Los Angeles. Some researchers have used surveys to show a marked falling away from religious practice among second-generation Muslims in France.[2] Typically, those we study live in a web of loyalties and networks that may well take on different emphases in different contexts and at different times, and that typically change in the very processes of social and political life. A Muslim identity has, however, been important and has entered into public life at both local and national levels.

To explore the cultural life of these populations, we have chosen to focus on the theme of “space.” Many of these Muslims have themselves moved physically from one geographic area to another, and they, their offspring, and converts as well often have a vivid sense of “displacement,” both physical and cultural. Each essay, to varying degrees, explores issues of space in the multiple senses of that word, seeking to delineate the “social space” of networks and identities created as individuals interact in new contexts, as well as the “cultural space” that emerges in a wide variety of ways as Muslims interact with one another and with the larger community. In some cases that interaction entails “physical space”: the very right of residence, the erection of community buildings, the processions that mark an urban area. The emphasis on space allows us to explore Muslim cultural practices beyond the articulations of elites to the everyday practices of ordinary people. And this focus guides us to values and to (dis)unities that define moral and social life.[3]

Simplest to identify are visual clues to the presence of Muslims: people distinguished by beards or head coverings, for example, and the ever-increasing array of objects distributed by Islamic shops and catalogues: posters, hangings, mugs, bumper stickers, key chains, jewelry, and so forth—a modest “commoditization” of Islam. Similarly, the outsider may look for built or altered environments—homes, mosques, shops, neighborhoods—that seem “Muslim.” But “Islamic architecture” proves to have complex meanings. Certain Middle Eastern architectural styles are often, to be sure, taken by the larger population as quintessentially Muslim—an unfortunate stereotyping, as Gulzar Haider argues below, in which arches and domes were enthusiastically used in the United States as shorthand for self-indulgence, luxury, even decadence, in gambling casinos, movie halls, and the like.

It is all the more ironic, therefore, that Muslims in Europe and America today have turned in many cases to such conventional styles. Thus, in one American college town, the Muslim Students’ Association recently worked with picture books and a local restaurant designer to plan what the architect called “the prettiest traditional mosque on the East Coast” (Raleigh News and Observer, January 3, 1989 )—one that could, quite simply, have been set down anywhere.[4] Yet clearly, if one reviews Islamic architecture throughout history, no such single style emerges, to the point where the art historian Oleg Grabar has proposed that “traditional Islamic culture identified itself through means other than visual,” and certainly not by conventions of architectural form (Grabar 1983: 29).

In light of Grabar’s cautionary comments on architecture, the visual—although easiest to apprehend, and privileged in European thought—should not be taken as primary. Virtually every essay here emphasizes that it is ritual and sanctioned practice that is prior and that creates “Muslim space,” which thus does not require any juridically claimed territory or formally consecrated or architecturally specific space. The essays, moreover, describe people whose personal and community lives may be engaged at multiple sites on different continents, or even people who seem to transcend sites completely, caught up in global movements of proselytization and trade, so that they essentially exclude the outside world to carry with them a world of ritual, relationships, and symbols that creates some variety of Muslim space wherever they are present.

This new space, one might suggest, is largely created by humble “post-modernists” creating their own cartographies and living the new globalization implicitly as they travel and interact with one another (Rouse 1991). But there are also intellectuals, such as the late Ismail al Faruqi, Seyyid Husain Nasr, and many others, who challenge narratives that objectify diaspora Muslims as the proletarians or underclass of late capitalism, disadvantaged Third World migrants in need of modernity, or materialist professionals contributing to the brain drain. Instead, invoking the powerful Islamic concepts of hijra (migration, “hegira”) and da‘wa (mission, invitation), they see themselves as providentially poised to both challenge and render service to the “West” through the defense and spread of Islam. Muslims, inhabiting their own imagined space, thus become subjects in a cosmic history of their own making, far greater than the narrow histories of Marxism or nationalism handed to them.


Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.