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


Making a Space For Everyday Ritual and Practice

Part 1 of this book looks particularly at Word-centered ritual and Word-sanctioned practice in the context of Muslims interacting with one another and not oriented to the larger community. The difficulty of maintaining this distinction is signaled by chapter 7, the first essay in Part 2, on imprisoned African-American Muslims, who, one might argue, are merely engaged in the same kind of inner-focused activities as Muslims in their Canadian or Philadelphia homes, in French foyers, and in community mosques, the subjects of other essays in Part 1. Imprisoned Muslims, however, engage in continuous negotiation with prison officials to allow the ritual practices—which, after all, define such basic daily matters as schedule, food, and dress—they seek to follow among themselves.

A significant dimension of this practice in these new contexts is the utter “portability” of Islamic ritual. As Akbar Muhammad, himself rooted in the American Muslim experience, has emphasized, Muslim ritual requires no “sacred place.” There is no formula of consecration or deconsecration of a site of worship, and historically mosque sites have been used, not only for praying, but for everything from doing business to levying troops (oral comments, May 13, 1990). That it is the activity that defines a place is nicely illustrated by an anecdote told by Heidi Larson based on conversations with Muslim children in Southall, London, who spoke often of going to the mosque for Qur’an study. The “mosque” proved to be an Anglican church, which made space available to Muslims for children’s education. Similarly, among Americans, the term mosque can be used of a group of people uniting for worship, rather than of a building. Surveys of American Muslims have, moreover, shown little correlation between conceptions of “being a good Muslim” and mosque attendance (Haddad and Lummis 1987: 27, 35).[6] This interpretation of the relative insignficance of the physical mosque resonates with normative Muslim resistance to sacralizing any object and thus risking shirk (polytheism). That mosque buildings may become deeply significant in certain historical contexts, including those discussed in Part 2 here, is of course equally the case. But for ritual, it is the practice, not the mosque, that matters.

The essays show how these enduring themes are recreated and reimagined in new settings. An outsider might think that ritual and sanctioned practices among migrants are merely a clinging to the past, continuing the cultural practices of the communities they have left behind. This impression is heightened by the presence of “imported” religious leaders and of ghettoes or neighborhoods—rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Paris, Brick Lane in London, Manningham in Bradford, Kreuzburg in Berlin—that seem to reproduce the home country. One manifestation of the assumption of continuity has been the European television programs meant to provide education about immigrant rituals and celebrations by filming those rituals in the home country.[7] German television, for example, prepared programs on ‘Id al-Fitr and the Prophet’s birthday filmed in North Africa (Arabia, November 1984).[8] Such an approach, as has been effectively argued in relation to similar filming of the Caribbean Carnival as a presumed way of understanding such rituals in Britain, assumes a fossilization of practice and fails, above all, to see the new meanings such practices take on in a new environment. Carnival in London’s Notting Hill, for example, is clearly linked to the sociological position of the immigrant black population (Diawara 1990). We cannot assume that the old and new cultures are fixed, and that change results from pieces being added and subtracted. Instead, new cultural and institutional expressions are being created using the symbols and institutions of the received tradition.

What then is new? One significant change is the very fact of such representations as television programs, and, even more, of Muslims’ own initiatives that define, “objectify,” and represent “Islam.” This “objectification” (Eickelman 1989) has been advanced, not only in America and Europe but in lands of origin as well, by modern education, the media, and by Islamic movements. “Objectification” entails self-examination, judging others, and judging oneself. The sense of contrast—contrast with a past or contrast with the rest of society—is at the heart of a self-consciousness that shapes religious style. “I’m always aware that I’m a Muslim, that when I go out I represent Muslims and [must not] do anything [that would cause people to] blame Muslims,” a young woman in Bradford said.[9] The Muslim migrants are themselves largely products of postcolonial countries where interaction with Europeans and European cultures has been lengthy. They are in no sense untouched “traditional” people encountering “the West.” In moving to Europe, migrants from rural areas in many cases replicate processes common in their own countries when people move from countryside to city and settle among diverse populations coping with industrialization, electoral politics, modern architecture, and the assaults of transnational consumer culture on every side (Mandel, this volume). Many are people who have moved before (Shaw 1988). These processes are intensified in North America and Europe and given additional salience by the very fact of living in what is imagined as “the West,” materialist, exploitative, licentious, and, at once, godless and Christian.

Werner Schiffauer, who has studied Turkish peasants in their home villages in Anatolia as well as in urban Turkey and Germany has coined the expression “the islamization of the self” to describe a central dimension of this “objectification.” He describes a pattern of religious practice bound up with the rhythms of everyday life and shared by the whole society in Anatolia; in contrast, among migrants, he finds withdrawal from the larger society to enter the religious community, which becomes, as he puts it, a counterweight, a place of respect (Schiffauer 1988: 134).

Similarly, Akbar Muhammad, using oral histories of African-American Muslims describing life up to the 1930s, has shown how mosques themselves were seen as a site of hijra and known as mahjar and given names like Masjid al Medina (to recall the Prophet’s great hijra), in a way that did not have classical precedents. We are reminded of how the founding event of the Muslim community, the hijra, a charged spatial metaphor in itself, comes to stand for a properly conducted Muslim life. The mosques, like the Muslim home, were meant to stand apart from the mundane and alienating world (oral comments, May 13, 1991). So even practices exclusive to Muslims, even hidden from outside view, are changed by the very fact of their larger context.

For some Muslims, there is a particular sense of merit and satisfaction because of the difficulties of practice in a larger environment that is not Muslim. A Turk in Paris, for example, explained, “It is more important to live Islam in France than in Turkey: to know how to follow practices and customs in a society not yours is a greater achievement” (Kastoriano 1987: 841). Several New York Muslims interviewed during Ramadan made the same point. A Pakistani-American surgeon, for example, questioned the practice in Muslim countries of “artificially changing their schedules” during Ramadan (which requires daylight abstinence). “Absolutely, you get more benefit here than when you just make your a.m.’s your p.m.’s.” And a Lebanese-American businessman agreed: “People get a joyous feeling because they have accomplished something in a place where they didn’t have to” (New York Times, March 6, 1992).

A particular absence in a largely non-Muslim environment is the lack of Islamic sounds, the sound of the azan (call to prayer) and the sound of Qur’anic recitation, the latter especially marked in the nights of Ramadan. A Long Island Arabic teacher noted that he had a timer to turn on a recording of the azan in his home (New York Times, March 6, 1992).[10] Catalogues from Islamic shops and newspaper advertisements aimed at Muslims are full of such items to create the sounds of an Islamic space. An electronic “Azan Clock,” for example, its digital display set in a replica of a domed mosque, can be set for the five daily prayers. Qur’anic tapes, produced in different styles and in different selections are widely available and certainly portable: as a poster at the Islamic Society of North America urged: “Use Driving Time to Listen to Holy Qur’an” (New York Times, September 3, 1990). Other devices (“qibla compasses”) available in French and American shops allow one to orient oneself to Mecca throughout the world, a critical skill for prayer, as well as for sleep, toilets, and burial—see, for example, advertisements in the Arrayah Newspaper (Philadelphia) and Al Nur: The Islamic Center Quarterly (Washington, D.C.).

Special perfumes or essences worn by men to congregational prayer are also often available. I accompanied a young Zanzibar-born Canadian Muslim to a Cairo market to find perfumes to take home to American Muslims reluctant to use local products that might have an alcohol base. Again, there is the sense of satisfaction in overcoming obstacles to find ways to create the sounds, smells, and practices that define Islamic space. This very sense of achievement is a further distinction of contemporary practice in non-Muslim areas.

A second marked characteristic of Muslim practice in the diaspora, closely associated with “objectification” and “islamization of the self,” is simply greater concern with Islamic practice. At the most basic level, increased wealth, even for those relatively poor in their new setting, allows ceremonial and ritual activities not possible for the poor in their place of origin. Indeed, normative practice and sponsorship of ritual events has often been associated with the well-born, so that, as Katy Gardner (1995) has shown for Sylhetis in Britain, migrant prosperity and observant religious style are linked in seeing migration as a source of blessing—and of enhanced social status.

A series of oral histories recorded in Bradford in the mid 1980s are suggestive of a transition to a higher level of religious practice in many individual lives. Thus a migrant from Mirpur, born in 1932, who arrived in Dewsbury to do factory work in 1961, described such change:

Oh, we’ve been very fortunate…we’re very grateful to Allah for keeping our children on the path of Islam. They haven’t gone away from their culture or their religion, unlike myself, when I came over to England there was no mosque in England; there was no way of telling when…we have to fast .…We were quite isolated…so we just used to celebrate Eid whenever we could. (BHRU: CO123 8.9.87 Punjabi)

Migrants may thus distinguish themselves from their individual and collective pasts. A young Bradford-born woman, who spent her teenage years in Pakistan, recalled her own childhood education: “The teaching in Pakistan doesn’t teach you to understand the words” (BHRU: CO83 29.10.86). Another criticized Pakistanis for having to appear religious (Mirza 1989: 26). For converts, of course, the very fact of a life of discipline and sanctioned behavior, typically seen as a dramatic break with one’s past, often represents part of the great attraction of Islam.

Has practice also changed by the embrace of normative patterns—not only more practice but “correct” practice—at the cost of former local customary behavior? This has been the goal, indeed the expectation, of some Muslim leaders, who have hoped that in a new setting, particularly when Muslims from different areas were joined together, individuals would examine their practices in the light of scriptural norms and focus on what was sanctioned and could be common to all.[11] Several of the essays below emphasize that kind of religious style, a style, of course, common among certain groups in Muslim places of origin as well. In the United States, the Islamic Society of North America, which is strongly linked to professionals and university populations, has particularly urged Muslims to overcome ethnic customs in favor of a shared normative practice. “The U.S. is the cutting edge,” a Muslim graduate student at Harvard told me. “[Here] Muslims strip away centuries of innovation and succeed in getting to the essence.”

The case of sectarian groups in the diaspora is particularly striking. In recent years, several such groups, long regarded as outside the mainstream have, in some respects, modified their interpretations and practices to conform more to those of the majority. The Isma‘ilis, who have substantial communities in the diaspora, now conflate their relationship to the Aga Khan with patterns characteristic of a Sufi tariqa (rite, brotherhood), and cultivate cultural expressions shared by Muslims generally, among them architecture (in the project described in Holod 1983), and philanthropic work, including economic development. The Aga Khan himself has argued that the colonial period was one that encouraged groups to emphasize difference, whereas the contemporary situation allows for seeking commonalities. The Senegalese Mourides, Moustapha Diop has noted, have of late turned to emphasize shared Muslim symbols, encouraging the pilgrimage to Mecca rather than only that to Touba, site of their founder’s tomb (cf. Ebin, this volume).

The Ahmadiyya, legally declared non-Muslim in Pakistan in 1974 and subsequently banned from Mecca, make a claim to a shared Muslim identity by the very architecture of the mosque designed by Gulzar Haidar, which he discusses below. Since 1984, the Ahmadiyya movement has made its headquarters in Britain (Lewis 1994: 98). The Ahmadi, like the Alevis in Berlin discussed by Ruth Mandel, illustrate greater opportunities for free expression than many old Muslim areas allow. The Alevis have flourished as they could not in Turkey, not only because of this freedom but because the very practices read as “libertine”—for example, in relation to women’s behavior and dress—have been judged approvingly as “liberal” in Europe. Indeed, the British Muslim writer Shabir Akhtar has argued that “the freest Muslims live in the West and in Iran. Everywhere else, Islam is an outlawed political force” (Lewis 1994: 52).

The move to what is perceived as Islamically sanctioned, normative practice has, moreover, been encouraged by a range of other transnational movements not studied directly but alluded to in various essays, including the Saudi Rabita al-‘Alam al-Islami (World Muslim League). A wide variety of media link Muslims as well. They may be geared to a particular country even while communicating common themes: thus a call-in fatwa show in France can advise on a problem at once French and Islamic: Are snails halal? (Barbulesco 1987). The hajj is televised live in many Muslim countries and available later on video.

A final theme in the changed characteristics or emphases in religious practice in the diaspora has been a push to a more dispersed leadership, more popularly generated, for religious observances and community representation. Women appear to play a central role, whether formally in mosque organization (Haddad and Lummis 1987: 131) or informally in the context of devotional assemblies described below (Qureshi, this volume). In the United States and elsewhere, Muslims elect prayer leaders or imams instead of receiving officials appointed by the state. Muslim prisoners in the United States have in some cases, as described by Dannin below, struggled to sustain the practice of identifying their own leadership instead of accepting state-appointed “chaplains,” arguing that such practice reflects scriptural norms. Some mosque congregations in the United States have no salaried imam at all, but rotate leadership among the members themselves (Haddad and Lummis 1987: 61–62). Not only in the diaspora, but everywhere, movements like the Tablighi Jama‘at have made an emphasis on diffused, group-chosen leadership central to their operation, in contrast to the exclusive leadership of the old elites. Thus changes in leadership roles, in some cases intensified by residence in the diaspora, are part of changes taking place worldwide.

In looking at interaction among Muslims, the two final essays in Part 1, on the Mourides and on Tablighi Jama‘at, emphasize the way in which shared behavior and devotional practice—shaped and given meaning in all its different environments—create a world for adherents replicable everywhere. For Tablighis, the sentiment expressed by a Brooklyn shopkeeper observing Ramadan—“the same food, the same moon…God is everywhere”—reaches its extreme. It is themselves, and their fellow Muslims as embodiments of Muslim ritual and practice, that define any place as Muslim space. Tablighis sit lightly on the earth. When a group of us touring London mosques came to the Tabligh center (a former synagogue), a courteous young man explained that at this mosque “there was nothing to see”; for that, we should go to the (Saudi-supported) London Mosque in Regent’s Park. Reverting to the juridical categories of classical Islam, a young Toronto Muslim explained that where he was, was daru’l-islam. Equally, the Mourides, with their icons, relationships, and cherished qasidas, “carry Touba in their hearts,” so that Marseilles or Manhattan are ultimately indistinguishable. The Shi’a can reproduce Karbala, as described in Part 2 by Schubel, through devotion and ethical action anywhere. In the very act of naming and orienting space through religious practice, we see a kind of empowering of Muslims and a clear form of resistance to the dominant categories of the larger culture.


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