Why Muslim Archives Matter, by Tim Powell

Transcript of presentation at the Everyday Muslim symposium, 31st January 2015 at Bishopsgate Institute.

The National Archives is best known as the custodian of the central records of the British state. However, my role as Senior Adviser: Religious Archives is to help raise the profile and understanding of religious archives, not just Christian, that are in private hands.

Although my job today is to talk about archives and their importance, I commend the way in which the Everyday Muslim project combines cultural artefacts in seeking to capture the myriad of experiences and expressions encompassed within the term Muslim. I see archives as one resource for understanding which, though of central importance, gains value in combination with others.

The creation of archives is a natural and inevitable activity of organisations and individuals in a literate society. As individuals we create records for personal reasons, to do with our relationships, our finances and property, our jobs and our hobbies. Organisations produce records in fulfilling their functions, by documenting core activities and recording the administrative tasks needed to keep the organisation in being. Some records – both of organisations and of individuals – are selected for permanent retention because they are judged to have enduring value. These are called archives.

What gives some records this enduring value? For an organisation, archives may be required for legal reasons, or the transaction of business and for other organisational reasons: for example, trust deeds, which may be centuries old, inform decisions made now about disposition of property and use of funds. Archives are also needed for recording accountability. Such functional reasons for keeping archives are extremely important. Yet they might be regarded as negative reasons: archives are kept because they have to be kept, through the record management process. Alongside this, there is a positive case to be made, that archives of religious figures, communities and organisations should be kept because they contribute to the good of a faith organisation, and of the wider society in which that organisation has its being.

Religious faith and its outward expressions has led the formation of law, moulded the social structures in which we operate, inspired our cultural life, and affected the very appearance of our cities, towns and villages. Over the years the religious scene has changed dramatically: long-established Christian denominations have seen their fortunes decline, while the great world religions, Islam chief among them, are now manifestly increasing numerically and in their significance for wider society. So whatever is said about the growing secularism of British society, religion remains a defining aspect of life for millions. It is not possible to create a full picture of contemporary Britain without taking religious faith into account, so it is important that religious bodies ensure that their presence is recognised and their voices are heard. History will always be written and if others write it for us, or fail to include us, our story is not being properly told.

Islam is an established British religion. There are millions of Muslims whose life and faith have developed in the context of British society and the culture of its regions and localities. Muslim interaction with this wider society has in turn altered it. Ensuring that there is an archival record of Muslims in Britain is therefore essential if we are to capture a valid picture of contemporary British society. Unfortunately, the current archival representation of Muslims in Britain is meagre, although a mention must be given to the Surrey History Centre and their relationship with Woking mosque. In this context, the launch of the East London Mosque archives last week is particularly important.

Archives offer first-hand, unmediated evidence of what happened in the past. And we are not only talking about the past of centuries ago; the experiences of our mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, even of our own childhoods, are part of your history. Archives help the researcher to place your history in context and offer an explanation of it.

But religious archives are not just important for academic research. They can give witness and provide inspiration for you and your community. How did the local Muslim presence begin? When was your mosque built? Who served there and when? These facts are building blocks in creating the sense of shared heritage, that can help bind a community together while placing it within the wider society with which it interacts. But archives can provide more for the life of your community and your mosque. You can find within them resources for the spiritual life, for the social life, and for the pastoral life. They might be used, for example, to support religious education, or to inform policy discussions by providing context and understanding.

William Faulkner noted, ‘The past is not dead. It isn’t even past’. History is omnipresent, not just in what we formally define as being historical. Most religious faiths acknowledge this as integral to their witness. The sacred year is structured around celebrations and commemorations, fasts and feasts that create an eternal cycle in which the past ceases to be a foreign country but forms the framework for life and worship in the present day.

Of course, the past can become a burden. For religious organisations it can be manifested in a retreat into history as a refuge against the difficulties of the present and the perceived dangers of the future. More damagingly, the pattern of the past can be used to construct a version of history to which the present must be made to conform. Here archives can be liberating by demanding critical thought that can challenge the established, official narrative. We can see for ourselves that the world is not immutable, that things have been and can be done differently.

So, the preservation and extension of the archival record of Muslims in Britain is more than a matter of good governance of the mosque or providing the raw material for future historians of Islam. It will inform and enrich the community of which you are a part. It will connect you with your past, give you understanding about the present, and offer you alternative visions for the future. Your Muslim archives really do matter.


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