“Migrations of Islam: Muslim American Cultural Expression in the 21st Century” begins with the premise that one of the defining events in the history of Islam came in the year 622, when the first Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina. That event, known as the hijra or migration, continues to serve as the starting point for the historic establishment of Muslim communities, and also as a metaphor for the movement across time and space of the many cultures of Islam. Migration evokes the multiple dislocations of Muslims and the numerous adaptations and accommodations of Islam as it found a home in new locations. While the works of many of the Muslim Americans artists, such as Sahar Ullah, Omar Offendum, Mohja Kahf, Wajahat Ali, Hamza Perez, Michael Muhammad Knight, and Azhar Usman, question the most hostile stereotypes of Muslims, they often are also producing challenges to Muslim communities. In the present moment, Muslim American cultural expression is an especially critical point of entry into the debate on the character and role of Islam in contemporary North American contexts.
Understanding Muslim cultural history in terms of migration emphasizes the often random movement of ideas, art forms, and cultural values associated with Islam, carried by individual artists, craftsmen, and scholars in their journeys through what would eventually become known as the Muslim World. The knowledge spread by Muslims eventually moved far beyond the realms dominated by Islamic dynasties, which had established their authority first in the Arabian Peninsula, then extending through West and South Asia and across North Africa into Southern Europe (Andaluz). But the spread of Islam in the medieval era was also marked by Muslims embracing the knowledge of others, translating Classical Greek philosophy, studying the geography of Ptolemy, and adapting the cultural forms of Byzantium and Persia as well as the arts of Africans and Indonesians, thus enriching the universal appeal of Islam. Cultural exchanges produced by the migrations of Muslims can thus be seen as the principal process by which Muslim artistic expression was originally internationalized, and this process continues in the present moment, which bears witness to the emergence of novel forms of contemporary Muslim cultures in North America.
“Migrations of Islam” focuses on manifestations of the varied lived experiences of Muslims in North America, but also engages the cultural connections between Muslim minorities in the United States and Canada and Muslim majority regions of the world. The project addresses the production of culture by Muslim American artists of diverse backgrounds from Arabs, South Asians, African Americans, and American converts to Islam as a way of unpacking ideological labels and interrogating narrow views of Islam and Muslims. Furthermore, through critical discussion of the historical and cultural contexts that have produced Muslim American culture, the project will explore how Muslims index culture as a means for identity creation or reformulation within the existing racial and ethnic formations.
The project frames the discussion Muslim American culture in terms of the relationship between cultural self-fashioning and civil society. Emphasis on civil society stems from a concern with cultural rights and freedom expression. On the one hand, since 9/11 the increased hostility toward Muslims in the US has generated a great deal of fear among Muslims about asserting a connection to Islam. The post-9/11 environment has demonized Islam to such a degree that the public assertion of Muslim identity or cultural alignment with Muslims is done with some risk. On the other hand, much of Muslim American culture has a critical relationship to US foreign and domestic policy. As a result, it can be perceived as anti-American. The open critique of US policy is, however, important to generating public debate. That Muslim artists and others who may oppose the “war on terror,” the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, or US support of Israel use cultural expression to develop their critical views is a healthy articulation of dissent and a productive engagement with the US public sphere. This project provides a space for documenting, discussing and promoting Muslim American cultural expression and expanding civil discourse in connection with Muslims in the US.