Transcript of presentation at the Everyday Muslim symposium, 31st January 2015 at Bishopsgate Institute.
Thank you first to the organisers for inviting me to speak in this opening session of the symposium. I hope that what I plan to say on the importance of archives for Muslims in Britain today will resonate with the more detailed presentations that are to follow.
I want to begin by quoting celebrated British writer George Orwell who captured the importance, and power, of archives in his novel 1984 when he wrote ‘who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past’.
Gaps in historical knowledge – what he described as ‘archival silences’ – really troubled him. In many ways, the ‘Everyday Muslim’ project addresses precisely this problem in relation to identifying, preserving and communicating the shared histories of Muslims living in Britain, both past, present and future.
One of the biggest challenges that I have faced as an historian who has spent many years carrying out research on Muslims in this country has been the fact that huge ‘archival silences’ exist in relation to this country’s Muslim people and communities.
Unfortunately the voices of generations of British Muslims are still not heard, and their stories remain untold.
Frustratingly we are often prevented from accessing their experiences and engaging with them properly because the necessary historical evidence does not seem to exist, or at least we cannot access it.
All too often, the archive seems to have little to say when it comes to Muslim experiences.
Archives are important for individuals and communities because they unlock personal and public doors to their past. This may sound like stating the obvious but it is necessary at an occasion such as this one to emphasise why archives are so significant.
In a nutshell, their significance lies in the way that they enable us to examine historical and present-day events. We could say that they serve as our ‘collective memory’, providing us with evidence of the past: they also promote accountability and transparency of earlier actions, whether in the long ago or more recently.
But we should also acknowledge that archives also contain and represent numerous apparent oppositions: namely, they contain evidence of memory and forgetting, suffering and hope, power and accountability, confinement and liberation, oppression and justice, conformity and diversity, silence and speaking. Archive content can be seemingly contradictory but then so is life!
And as people and communities develop new interests and perspectives shaped by contemporary events and issues, so we look afresh at (and often re-interpret) archive material.
This enables the shifting background to be explained and contextualised. Archives, therefore, help us to understand our history better, together with the role of particular individuals, organisations and movements in shaping this. As it is often said, ‘knowledge of the past shapes the future’.
Clearly, it is essential to be aware of how archives – including the one being put together by this project – directly shape understandings of the past.
When, for instance, we examine an archive today, whether in a library or online or in some other place, we are often seeing it stripped of the context that is so important to its meaning and significance.
Likewise, the creation, organisation, preservation and even destruction of archives are never neutral or impartial actions: instead, they reflect a society’s or a community’s or even an individual’s fundamental preoccupations or concerns.
Accordingly the evidence that we find in archives, I would argue, is not simply descriptive of the past but also prescriptive of how people understand their present and how they also want later generations to understand it too.
This reality makes analysing and working with an archive revealing, as the motivations behind its own development give us insights into the preoccupations of earlier communities, whether our own or not. Every archive accordingly has its own individual story to tell!
Of course, as others have pointed out, not all historians choose to, or need to, use traditional archival collections to conduct innovative and exciting research.
As it has been said, some historians command the respect of their peers (and their publishers) at a considerable physical or intellectual distance from the unique manuscripts and other papers that we usually associate with archival collections.
Nevertheless, for many professional historians archival research is associated with their rite of passage into the profession.
At some point in our careers most of us devote lengthy periods of time to the systematic examination of the carefully sorted primary sources in our chosen field of study.
But new forms of technology are now diversifying the kinds of material now available in archives – film, television, radio, and no doubt increasingly the internet in years to come offer the historian alternative sources of all important data.
Likewise the growing presence of oral history collections means that archives can be much more diverse in terms of what they contain as compared with the past.
However, the inescapable fact remains that in Britain today there are very few archives which document the history of its Muslim people and communities.
Indeed, my own work on the history of the East London Mosque’s origins and early days was only made possible by fortuitous access to what was contained within its then under-studied archive, about which you will hear more later on this morning.
In many ways, I struck it lucky! As I’m sure we would acknowledge, such an archive represents a rare and precious resource – few other mosques in the UK possess such rich documentary evidence about their past, and so it is clear that, in this respect, what is today available at the East London Mosque commands significance beyond its immediate community or geographical location.
Certainly, we need to appreciate the efforts of those former members of this mosque community who respected, collected, preserved and maintained its records, even if they themselves did not necessarily anticipate the ways in which these would later be opened up for wider use.
In my case, the contents of the archive at the East London Mosque enabled me to tell a fascinating story of that institution’s evolution. But, perhaps more importantly, it allowed me to think about and shed light on how far Muslim religious activity was shaped by local, national and international developments.
Through my exploration of mosque-building, I traced not just a history of immigration but also connections with Empire, trade and war and the contours of the process through which the so-called ‘Muslim’ community in London’s East End became established and evolved up to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century; in the process, my research revealed just how multifaceted the interactions between the mosque, local communities and wider society were.
I accordingly explored the changing symbolic and political dynamics of local communities and their identities as reflected in controversies, debates and tensions generated by such culturally-inscribed, visual appropriations of the built environment.
Likewise, I was able to reflect on the role of such religious places for resisting perceived discrimination and for securing empowerment through the assertion of cultural rights.
By locating the mosque’s history within the context of imperial and global forces, and by examining the long and often fraught struggles about how a Muslim sacred space is created, represented and used, I was in a position to tease out a politics of identity as increasing pluralisation of Britain’s religious make-up gathered momentum, thinking about broader questions such as:
- What is the symbolic significance of mosques in Britain for identity formation among ‘diasporic’ Muslims?
- How do mosques interact with their local environment, physically, socio-culturally and politically, and with the communities and institutions surrounding them?
- What functions have mosques and the struggle for their establishment served?
- Did they/do they, for instance, reinforce a sense of community belonging and act as ‘a potential bridge to non-Muslim communities’, or did they/do they also represent sites of contestation and social divisions within and between communities?
One of the exciting aspects of the ‘Everyday Muslim’ project is its engagement with run of the mill British Muslim lives, which, as they are revealed to us, turn out to be far from ordinary.
This is extremely valuable! After all, archives don’t just provide us with better understandings of the past. Equally they help to ensure that the records that we collect today are preserved for subsequent generations. Hence, they need to look forward as well as back!
We can’t escape the fact that history by and large until really quite recently tended to be written by elites, based on the records created and preserved by them.
It was not until the twentieth century, and particularly after the Second World War, that new kinds of history writing – ‘History from Below’ – started to emerge in a more systematic fashion.
This new historiographical development involved moving away from focusing on the great deeds of ruling elites – the powerful – to looking more closely and analytically at the lives, experiences and thoughts of ordinary people, placing centre stage those seemingly lost in the past, those whose actions and motives were usually obscured if not wholly invisible in the historical record.
Many of the British Muslims who came and settled, or were born and raised, in this country have belonged to what historians now term the ‘subaltern’ or subordinate layers of society. In the nineteenth century, a period that I explored in some detail in my book The Infidel Within (in which I looked at two hundred years of the Muslim presence in Britain), these included servants and ayahs, peddlers, street hawkers, musicians, sweepers, and lascars.
Just like the lower classes in Britain more generally, they did not create, nor did they leave behind, many records of their individual experiences. Their cultures, very often preserved at that time through oral traditions, were not particularly conducive to this kind of preservation of facts.
So very often I had to try to construct the history of these groups by relying on sources created by elites or those associated with them, and then effectively reading against the grain or between the lines of what I could find.
Indeed, as my own work has repeatedly taught me, taking a ‘History from Below’ approach forces us to use our imagination and creativity. It requires re-thinking and reinterpreting of fragments or scraps from the past in all kinds of forms.
It also demands – as I said earlier – that we learn how to listen to the voices of those who have been marginalised, that we allow them to speak and to be heard.
Let me illustrate this point by taking just one example, that of what happened to poor Muslims who died in London in the nineteenth century, whether in prisons, poor-law unions, hospitals or their own unfortunate hovels.
As with paupers more generally, they were usually buried in un-consecrated spaces or those allocated to Christian non-conformist denominations. In short, they died ignominiously, leaving no records.
The only glimpses of their life and death can be gleaned from contemporary accounts such as that of the Christian missionary Joseph Salter who was keen to convert, and in his view also civilise, these ‘Asiatics’, in particular the ‘Muhammadans’ among them.
But it is by reading Salter’s account, written for a different purpose, that we can grasp and acknowledge the determination of some of these nineteenth-century Muslim ‘Londoners’ – much to Salter’s chagrin – to stick ‘fast to their belief in the Islamic process of salvation after death’.
Salter provides one example of a Muslim who, refusing the invitation of salvation through Christ, wished to die reciting the ‘Kulma’ and did so eventually, surrounded by friends, family and neighbours. When Shaikh Mohammed, another such Muslim died, a coffin was apparently procured somehow, carried to his grave where it was deposited ‘in his last home by his countrymen’ – according to Salter, ‘a tribute which all Asiatics, even with difficulties attending it in England, are always anxious to perform with scrupulosity’.
Here, in effect, it is possible to construct a picture from the piecemeal information provided by a contemporary witness who was writing from a very different perspective to that of his subjects.
Clearly, time has moved on since the nineteenth century, and British Muslim communities are now well established and integrated in all sorts of ways within British life.
All the same, it is imperative that initiatives such as the ‘Everyday Muslim’ project are encouraged and supported by the communities that they represent, for if we gather records and document the experiences of British Muslims today, then – whether as professional historians or interested members of the public – in the future we will not face the same predicaments as we do at present, namely a paucity of records and other kinds of documentation.
The ‘Everyday Muslim’ project – by collecting and collating and conserving ordinary Muslim experiences, both in the present and in the past, and by ensuring that they are made available in the years to come – will surely make an invaluable contribution to ending the silences that still persist when it comes to making sense of British Muslim histories in the plural.
I want to conclude my opening remarks with an extract from a poem that, I believe, captures the apparently simple but actually very complex act of remembering, a process that is intrinsically bound up with archives and their wider role in society.
We should not forget that in some places, remembering unpleasant truths is illegal. Memory, in these contexts, becomes a political act, charged with social meaning. Hence, John Ross in ‘Against Amnesia’ tells us to
Never leave the past behind
Because the past will never go away,
It is like a boomerang,
It will always return,
It is always present,
It is always future,
It is the most fundamental human right,
What belongs to us.
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