Barbara Daly Metcalf, ed., Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

This volume features 13 articles by scholars of anthropology, sociology, history, architecture, religious studies and comparative literature in an attempt to examine the ways Muslims living in transnational contexts recreate and transform Islamic symbols and institutions to form collective Muslim identities. The particular focus of this volume is the construction and delimitation of personal and public space as a representation of communal identity, with religious identity at the forefront. The contributors seek to turn the reader’s gaze from the notion of “pure” texts and societies toward one of “heterogeneity and change” (p. xi), and to the practices of ordinary people in everyday interactions with their environment. Each essay in this volume explores notions of space in one or more of the multiple senses of the word, placing emphasis on the profound sense of displacement, both cultural and physical, that Muslims living abroad often experience.

In analyzing the creation of Muslim space, the authors follow the lead of Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson by challenging the “fiction of cultures as discrete object-like phenomena.” [1] Examining how Muslims allocate space illustrates the emergence of new identities that confound “established spatial orders, either through physical movement or through their own conceptual and political acts of reimagination.” [2] In each community examined — the range includes South Asians, Africans, African-Americans, Sunni and Shi‘a, in the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Germany — Islam provides the context for the construction of collective identities in transnational contexts.

Making Muslim Space is divided into two sections. The first section explores Muslim interaction, focusing particularly on how “word-centered ritual and word-sanctioned practice” (p. 6) construct new cultural and institutional expressions. The power of practice and the sacred word emerge in this section as the key religious means by which Muslims living abroad counter alien environments. Muslims construct personal space based on their interactions with, and their understanding of, perceived differences from the Other.

Writing about West and North African migrant workers in France, for example, Moustapha Diop and Laurence Michalak demonstrate how the French foyer has been transformed into an “Islamized” space in which religious and national-ethnic identities are increasingly played out, and not without conflict.

For Gulzar Haider, a Pakistani-born architect who has designed Islamic centers for American Muslim communities, the transformation of Islamic institutional architectural styles in the United States over a 25-year period reveals an increasing awareness by Muslims living in a predominantly non-Muslim society of the need to carve out a niche wherein they can assert to the outside world as well as the world within that they are indeed Muslims and that they are part of the cultural and religious map of American life.

Similarly, Aminah Beverly McCloud, Victoria Ebin and Regula Burckhardt Qureshi demonstrate in their respective chapters the crucial role domestic settings play in constructing diasporic/transnational Muslim identity. Writing about Senegalese Mouride traders in Paris, Ebin describes how an itinerant community appropriates space, making it specifically their own despite the transient nature of their lives. The Mourides, Ebin contends, create transient space through their presence: it moves with them, going where they go. Rather than erect physical buildings, they instead construct an invisible architecture through the invocation of Touba, the name given to the village in Senegal where Amadu Bamba had a prophetic revelation and where the Mourides later established their central mosque. In her chapter on Tablighi Jama’at in America and Europe, a religious movement spread through Indo-Pakistani migration, Barbara Metcalf points to a community that attempts to recreate the Prophet’s society in Medina.

In all the cases explored, the reinvention of space by migrant Muslim communities reveals that space is continually restructured to accommodate the distance of particular transmigrants from their own perceived national, ethnic, or sectarian spiritual centers. The result is the creation of new centers that transmigrants can call their own. How these new centers manifest themselves in the public arena is the subject of the second section of the volume.

Muslim space, constructed through the smells (special perfumes, incense), sounds (adhan clocks, tape-recorded Qur’anic recitations), notions of proper physical spatial orientation (qibla compasses, architecture) is often vigorously contested space within any given community. As several authors in this book demonstrate, a guiding metaphor for Muslims living abroad is the notion of correct religious practice. The realization of such practice fuels an ongoing debate within these communities, particularly as the debate relates to struggles to overcome the obstacles of living in an alien society.

The construction of correct public space in new settings, particularly when the community is multinational, is meant to prompt individuals and sub-groups within a broader Islamic community to examine local tradition and practice and focus on what is, or might be, common to all. As Robert Danin notes in his chapter on prison mosques in the United States, a primary goal of African-American Muslim inmates is to create a space within prison walls where fellow believers can feel that they are neither in prison nor in the midst of a non-Muslim society, but rather in a world unto itself that represents a space common to Muslims worldwide.

Equally compelling is the case of Turkish migrants in Kreuzberg, the “Turkish ghetto” of Berlin. Here, in a particularly hostile setting, Ruth Mandel describes how Turkish migrants create “a place of their own,” through food, dress and language, in which meaningful expressions of Turkish identity are enacted. Both Danin and Mandel highlight how the reconstruction of space provides a means by which communities define and control group boundaries. Similarly, Vernon Schubel, Susan Slyomovics and Pnina Werbner, writing respectively about Urdu and Gujarati speaking Shi‘a, the Muslim World Day parade and New York “storefront” mosques, and Pakistani Muslims living in Britain, illustrate the ways that group boundaries are “stamped into the earth” (Werbner), “Islamizing” all that is around and reminding the non-Muslim public of a Muslim presence in their midst.

Muslims living in non-Muslim societies construct boundaries for many complex reasons. How Muslims are perceived or feel themselves to be perceived by the larger community plays a significant role in how public space is created. Muslims make claims on public space in very complex ways. This is seen most clearly in the final two essays, by John Eade and Rachel Boul. Treating Britain and France respectively, Eade and Boul both point to conflicts inherent in the claiming of public space that is perceived by a potentially hostile society as unclaimable for religious purposes. Eade focuses on conflicts over the acquisition and remodeling of historic buildings in London by Muslims, while Boule examines the subject of “veiled” Beurette school girls and the subsequent gendering of the debate (conducted largely by males, both Muslims and non-Muslims) over the veil’s social propriety. However different the manifestations of space, the ensuing conflicts in France and Great Britain reveal how transnational Muslim communities confront the need to define themselves not only in terms of a multi-vocal religious community, or an out-of-place, even transient minority community in a foreign society, but also as outsiders, alien usurpers of national patrimony and subverters of national mores.

So what can we conclude about the construction of Muslim space? The chapters in this volume point to a number of different themes. Each essay points to ways in which Muslim life in non-Muslim environments becomes abstracted from the larger, society, creating a counter to that which seems alien or kafir. A style of being emerges in contrast to the dominant societies’ interpretation of Muslim identity. That said, one would like to see the contributors take the argument a step further, to ask, for example, not only how Muslims react to the non-Muslim outsider but, as in the case of all multi-ethnic transnational communities, how Muslims react to the Other among themselves. We need to address how, for example, Sierra Leonean Muslims in a transnational setting define themselves (as Muslims as well as Sierra Leoneans, and as members of any of the 18 different ethnic groups that reside in Sierra Leone and abroad) in relation to fellow Muslims from, say, Pakistan with whom they may share communal Muslim space, and with whom they may be lumped together, both in positive (news reports on American Muslims celebrating Ramadan) and negative light (terrorism, clitoridectomy, arranged marriages) by the non-Muslim majority. We must then pose questions about the extent to which the transnational predicament defines an emergent sense of “Muslim-ness” rooted in ethnicity and/or nationality. Finally, we need to return to the fundamental question posed by this volume: How do the above factors ultimately influence the construction of Muslim space?

Implicit in the essays is an understanding that any particular group’s negotiation of global assertions of identity is intricately intertwined with ethnic/national assertions of what it means to be Muslim, but this ultimately limits the inquiry, constricting the terms of this significant and fascinating topic. Transnational Muslim communities, like all Muslim communities, are complex, often highly contested constructs. Indeed, while dominant voices in any community may define what it means to be a Muslim, we must also address the seemingly weak voices whose claim to the interpretation of Muslim space is equally valid. Muslim space is defined not only by its juxtaposition to non-Muslim space, but equally by the complex interactions of a multinational Muslim community in which not only dominant voices in the community are heard, but resistant voices challenge monolithic interpretations of being Muslim. Together, these voices render Muslim space diverse and dynamic.

Creating new communities in alien settings challenges Muslims to continually renegotiate their surroundings. This volume challenges us to think more about the way in which Muslims redefine Islam in non-Muslim contexts and to investigate the processes through which these new definitions are enacted. It is long overdue, in terms of its thematic approach, as well as its gaze upon a much broader transmigrant and immigrant Muslim community than that often treated in volumes of Muslims “abroad.” For those seeking a text to introduce transnational Muslim communities into our classes, this volume is a good place to start. It is a most welcome addition to a discussion that is only beginning.


[1] Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Beyond Culture: Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference,” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1992), pp. 6-23.
[2] Ibid., p. 7

How to cite this article:

JoAnn D'Alisera "Review," Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).

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