School of Global Studies

The Afterlives of Urban Muslim Asia: Alternative Imaginaries of Society and Polity

In the context of upheaval in Muslim Asia, studies of the region's urban centres and migrant communities can offer critical insights into identities that transcend sectarian and national identity and enable greater sensitivity in heritage preservation.

Yet, it is widely accepted that conflict and large-scale migrations over the past century, of minorities and Muslims, has led to 'decosmopolitanisation'. This project will provide new empirical data and analysis of Muslim Asia's legacy of cosmopolitan urban living in the context of migration and conflict. Its empirical focus is on four cities: Herat, Kabul, Aleppo, and Bukhara. It will explore the experiences of ethno-religious minorities and the extent to which legacies of cosmopolitan urban life remain a vital aspect of the cities' Muslim populations. We anticipate that by doing so the project will enable greater sensitivity in urban heritage policy and have a transformative effect on public perceptions about Muslim Asia.

The project will be a collaboration between the University of Sussex (School of Global Studies and the Sussex Asia Centre), the University of Copenhagen (Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies), and the University of Cambridge (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies). The project’s partner in Afghanistan is the Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies.

This project will commence in January 2021 and it is funded by a grant from the AHRC.

.AHRC

About the project

While it is widely accepted that conflict and large-scale migrations over the past century, of minorities and Muslims, has led to 'decosmopolitanisation' of Muslim Asia’s cities, we have also seen that interreligious relations actually persist, but often unrecognised, in older and newer diasporic contexts, and in appeals to a shared urban heritage. The historic presence of ethno-religious minorities in Muslim Asia’s urban centres is also a source of intellectual activity, political debate, and cultural imagination in the region. Influential actors–merchants, intellectuals, artists, and politicians - advance geographical imaginaries that contest both modern conceptions of the secular nation-state as well as sectarianised notions of culture and polity. The cultural basis for such imaginaries is often to be found in historical and cultural imaginings of Asia’s cities which have been ‘branded’ by national and international actors as ‘cultural heritage’ sites. This comparative research programme proposes to analyse the ways in which both everyday living and projects of the imagination invoke urban imaginaries, and the extent to which these transcend (or reinforce) religious, sectarian, national and ethnic boundaries. It will deliver a novel approach to the significance of urban heritage to politics and culture in Muslim Asia, challenge one-dimensional understandings of Muslim-non-Muslim relationships, and respond to an urgent need for younger generations of the diasporas understudy to have access to material relating to their backgrounds.

Objectives
  1. Instead of focusing on the declining diversity of Muslim Asia’s urban centres, we will investigate their afterlives. By deploying the term ‘afterlives’ we seek to bring attention to the ongoing significance of the cultural legacies of urban centres in places elsewhere and amongst communities whose ‘names’ identify them with past residence in particular cities. The project will seek to document variation in the degree to which the selected urban centres continues to be a powerful source of identity and ask what accounts for such variation.

  2. A second focus will be the cultural, geographic, and political imaginaries in which the selected cities play a role today. This aspect of the project will necessitate an ethnographic engagement with the cities' Muslim majority populations. This aspect of the project will necessitate an ethnographic engagement with key categories of actors – merchants, intellectuals, artists, and politicians – active in the promotion of discourses of urban heritage, and also with a broad range of architectural, textual, visual, poetic, culinary and literary genres, some of which have been formally identified as constituting ‘intangible heritage’.

  3. By focusing on lived practices and activities in the present-day, the project will go beyond the tendency evident in much scholarship on emigrant minority communities to dwell on the centrality of nostalgia and memory to their collective and individual identities. It will seek, instead, to understand the transmission of habits and modes of urban living to new locales and their ongoing circulation in historic urban centres themselves. In particular, we will focus in diaspora communities on the ability to make connections across boundaries as an especially powerful aspect of the legacy of cosmopolitan living in Muslim Asia’s urban centres.
The cities

Afterlives will focus on the persistence or avoidance of interreligious relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and the modes by which these either elicit or invoke shared urban sensibilities. The project will achieve these aims by means of a comparative programme of research on the after lives of four carefully selected urban centres in Muslim Asia: Kabul and Herat (Afghanistan), Aleppo (Syria) and Bukhara (Uzbekistan).

Each of these urban centres have historically been home to sizeable communities of ethno-religious minorities, including Jews, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. Each of these centres has also witnessed large-scale migration of ethno-religious minorities over the past century - this process, though, has occurred at different time scales and in relationship to contrasting political processes that have been regional, national, and global in their scope. In terms of being the focus for attempts to restore and maintain their tangible and intangible heritage, these cities occupy different points along a spectrum. In the period before the current conflict, Aleppo’s residents witnessed multiple waves of urban heritage activity. Since 2002, Kabul and Herat have seen limited projects of urban heritage restoration – especially by the Aga Khan Foundation - that focus on historic buildings. By contrast, Bukhara has been the site of long-term and often intrusive forms of tangible and intangible heritage renewal and preservation over several decades; most recently in the context of ‘Silk Road’ tourism. 

Kabul and Herat: Afghanistan

Afghanistan was home to substantial communities of Hindus, Sikhs and Jews throughout much of the twentieth century. These communities played a central role in the historic trade in commodities between South and Central Asia and remained an important aspect of Afghanistan’s economy during the twentieth century. Most of the country’s Jews had emigrated to Israel and the USA by 1952. The onset of civil war in 1992 resulted in the emigration of most Hindus and Sikhs. Communities established themselves in Hamburg and Long Island (especially Hindus) and London, Birmingham and Amsterdam (Sikhs), and New York, Tel Aviv and Bangkok (Jews). Few Hindu and Sikh families remain in Afghanistan; ongoing residency is uncertain, especially given new provision in India for religious-based naturalisation.

Bukhara: Uzbekistan

The Emirate of Bukhara was home to a substantial Jewish community identifying themselves as ‘Bukharan’ and speaking a Judaeo-Persian language. In the years following the Bolshevik revolution, many Jewish and Muslim merchant families from the region emigrated –many moved to Afghanistan, others travelled to Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula, and the Russian Empire. Many Jews who had arrived in Afghanistan from Soviet Central Asia left for India, Israel, and the USA. Bukhara’s Muslim exiled communities settled in Afghanistan; wealthier families relocated in the 1970s to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States. In the 1980s, a wave of Bukharan Jews migrated to New York and Vienna.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, further Bukharan Jews migrated to Israel and New York. In the 2000s, the ‘Bukharan’ presence in New York was bolstered by substantial labour migration into the city of Muslims (especially from Samarqand).  Bukharan Jews and Muslims are now well-established in New York and New Jersey.

Aleppo: Syria

The late 19th century witnessed a largely economic migration of the Jews of greater Syria, mainly to Egypt, Europe and the Americas. By the turn of the century, Aleppo was home to around 7,000 Jews. The majority worked in commercial occupations; the wealthiest, engaged in international trade, were connected to diasporic networks in Marseilles, London, Paris, Vienna, Milan, and Manchester. Many of humbler origins left Aleppo after 1909 to escape conscription into Ottoman armies, most heading to the Americas. Some migrated to Palestine for religious and ideological reasons. The establishment of Israel in 1948, and the conflict between Arab nationalism and Zionism, led to further migration. The second half of the twentieth century saw a succession of tightening and easing of restrictions on the ability of Aleppine Jews to travel beyond Syria’s national borders; a major relaxation of restrictions in 1992 led to the emigration of the great majority of the 4,000 Jews left in Aleppo. Today, the Aleppine Jewish community in New York is one of the largest diasporic settlements, numbering between 20,000 and 40,000. Many initially continued the trades they had practiced in Syria, forming a merchant diaspora.

Methodology

We will assess the range of ways in which the urban centres under investigation have and have not maintained significance as sites of identity, visitation and heritage tourism, investment and political engagement. Our twin focus will be on the cities’ dispersed populations and those actively involved in the production and dissemination of knowledge about them. Afterlives will thus conduct research on the persistence or avoidance of interreligious relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and the modes by which these either elicit or invoke shared urban sensibilities. We will conduct ethnographic fieldwork amongst migrant minority and Muslim communities in London, Manchester, Bangkok, New York, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Vienna, and in the selected cities themselves (in Bukhara, Herat and Kabul; conditions in Aleppo do not currently allow for fieldwork).

1) The project will generate empirical data on temporal and geographic dispersal from the selected cities. We will map flows of people through space and time by conducting textual and visual research.

2) The project will investigate how projects of imagination – such as notions of Aleppines being the heirs of a unique 'Eastern Spirit' and the idea that Herat in Khorasan was an inclusive cultural realm – are produced and sustained, and explore how they transcend and reinforce religious, sectarian, national and ethnic boundaries. To do so we will investigate emergent configurations of culture, history, identity and geography in Muslim Asia by exploring the significance of relationships and exchanges between Muslim and ethno-religious minorities to imagination in the region today.  We will identify and interview in-depth key actors involved in the active production of imaginaries (intellectuals, musicians, chefs, poets, as well as local, national and diaspora-oriented politicians and activists). We will record the genres (visual, literary, musical, culinary) in which such imaginations are generated and sustained.  We will explore the implication of architectural reconstruction on such imaginaries by way of visits to key sites, and interviews with relevant heritage specialists, local and national policy-makers, activists, pilgrims/tourists, and custodians.

3) Given declining levels of religious diversity in urban centres, it is widely assumed that Silk Road-era commercial relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim merchants are no longer of relevance. Yet our recent fieldwork has shown that Muslim and Sikh traders from Afghanistan interacted from 1980s onwards in London and Moscow, while Aleppine Jews in New York bought cloth from Muslim suppliers in Aleppo. To explore such interreligious commercial relationships in detail we will carry out in-depth ethnographic work with diasporic merchants in key trading sites - markets, shops and warehouses - and explore documentary and archival material in the form of biographies and auto-biographies of merchants, company records, and oral history interviews.

4) To research the ‘doing’ of connectivity, and, more generally, the role played tacit modes of acting across lines of difference in sustaining cultural and religious sensibilities of urban living this project will focus on specific practices (e.g. of financial entrustment, institution building), rituals (both religious and secular), expressions of sociality (e.g. of neighbourhood life and community commensality), and topographies (e.g. of cemeteries, sacred sites, and market-places). We will gather this material in order to analyse the role these practices have played in facilitating and constraining the cultivation of legacies of collective urban living over time and space in migrant contexts and communities.

People

Team Members:

Professor Magnus Marsden (University of Sussex, Anthropology)

Magnus Marsden is the project’s Principal Investigator. He will conduct research on the afterlives of Kabul and Herat, focusing especially on the trajectories of these cities’ Sikh, Hindu and Jewish populations.

Dr Paul Anderson (University Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies; Assistant Director, HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, Cambridge University)

Paul Anderson will conduct research on Aleppo, exploring the significance of the city for the identities of its diasporic communities.

Dr Vera Skvirskaja (Associate Professor Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen).

Vera Skrviskaja’s work will concern Bukhara, focusing especially on the relationships between Bukharan Muslims and Jews and the ways in which these are shaped by their relationship to the city.

International Advisory Board:

Professor Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (History, James Madison University)

Professor Thomas Loy (Institute of Iranian Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna)

Professor Jonathon Shannon (Anthropology, Hunter College).

News and Events:

Magnus Marsden published an article (Farsi) on Afghanistan’s Jewish history for Nowruz Radio.

Relevant publications 

Relevant publications by project members:

Marsden, Magnus. 2021. Beyond The Silk Roads: Trade, Mobility and Geopolitics across Eurasia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsden, Magnus. 2020. ‘The alternative histories of Muslim Asia’s urban centres: De-cosmopolitanisation and beyond’. Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 38(1):8-31.

Marsden, Magnus. 2018. ‘Beyond Bukhara: Trade, identity and interregional exchange across Asia’. History and Anthropology 29(sup1):S84-S100.

Magnus Marsden (2018) Islamic cosmopolitanism out of Muslim Asia: Hindu–Muslim business co-operation between Odessa and Yiwu, History and Anthropology, 29:1, 121-139,

Anderson, Paul. Forthcoming. Civic Contestations: Merchants, Markets and Urban Order in Pre-Conflict Syria. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Anderson, Paul. 2020. Not a Silk Road: trading networks between China and the Middle East as a dynamic interaction of competing Eurasian geographies. Global Networks20(4), pp.708-724.

Anderson, Paul. 2018. “Aleppo in Asia: Mercantile Networks between Syria, China and (Post-) Soviet Eurasia since 1970”. History and Anthropology 29: S67-S83.

Caroline Humphrey, Magnus Marsden, and Vera Skvirskaja. 2019. Cosmopolitanism in the City: Interaction and Coexistence in Bukhara. In S. Mayaram, The Other Global City, London: Routledge.

Other resources

Radio Nowruz

Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies

 Photographs:

Emir of Bukhara's summer house_ KabulThe Emir of Bukhara's summer house, Qala-ye Fatuh, Kabul

Emir of Bukhara grave_ KabulThe tomb of the last Emir of Bukhara, Shuhada-e Salahin cemetery, Kabul

Emir of Bukhara KabulThe grave of Sayyid Mir Muhammad Alim Khan (1880 - 1944), the last Emir of Bukhara in Kabul's Shuhada-e Salahin cemetery

Bagh Babur KabulBagh-e Babur, resting-place of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur (1483 - 1530), Kabul 

     Afghan Sikh congregants at the Guru Nanak Darabar Gurdwara, Southall, London
     Afghan Sikh congregants at the Guru Nanak Darabar Gurdwara, Southall, London
     A Sikh Gurdwara in the Hindu Guzar neighbourhood of Kabul
     A Sikh Gurdwara in the Hindu Guzar neighbourhood of Kabul
     Hindu Temple, Shor Bazaar, Kabul
     Hindu Temple, Shor Bazaar, Kabul
     Plaque at a Gurdwara in Kabul commemorating Sikh and Hindu victims of a terrorist attack in Jalabad, Afghanistan
     Plaque at a Gurdwara in Kabul commemorating Sikh and Hindu victims of a terrorist attack in Jalabad, Afghanistan
     The Yu Aw syngogue, Herat, Afghanistan
     The Yu Aw syngogue, Herat, Afghanistan
     

 Photographs:

Emir of Bukhara's summer house_ KabulThe Emir of Bukhara's summer house, Qala-ye Fatuh, Kabul

Emir of Bukhara grave_ KabulThe tomb of the last Emir of Bukhara, Shuhada-e Salahin cemetery, Kabul

Emir of Bukhara KabulThe grave of Sayyid Mir Muhammad Alim Khan (1880 - 1944), the last Emir of Bukhara in Kabul's Shuhada-e Salahin cemetery

Bagh Babur KabulBagh-e Babur, resting-place of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur (1483 - 1530), Kabul 

     Afghan Sikh congregants at the Guru Nanak Darabar Gurdwara, Southall, London
     Afghan Sikh congregants at the Guru Nanak Darabar Gurdwara, Southall, London
     A Sikh Gurdwara in the Hindu Guzar neighbourhood of Kabul
     A Sikh Gurdwara in the Hindu Guzar neighbourhood of Kabul
     Hindu Temple, Shor Bazaar, Kabul
     Hindu Temple, Shor Bazaar, Kabul
     Plaque at a Gurdwara in Kabul commemorating Sikh and Hindu victims of a terrorist attack in Jalabad, Afghanistan
     Plaque at a Gurdwara in Kabul commemorating Sikh and Hindu victims of a terrorist attack in Jalabad, Afghanistan
     The Yu Aw syngogue, Herat, Afghanistan
     The Yu Aw syngogue, Herat, Afghanistan