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Everyday Muslim: Beyond Representation, Sadiya Ahmed

Sadiya Ahmed founded Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative in response to the lack of representation of the Muslim narrative in both archives and museums in Britain.

To date there are three archive collections held at five archive depositories across London and the South-East. Alongside her extensive experience of archiving and curating, Sadiya has also led numerous fundraising and heritage projects, she has also negotiated collaborations and partnerships with museums, archives, academics, artists, media and community groups across Britain.

We talked to Sadiya about how we move beyond ‘representation’, why it is important to collect our own stories and reinterpreting artefacts in museums and gallery spaces.

Eldest of nine siblings, mother to four children and a former teaching professional, you are a force to be reckoned with! How did your experiences growing up lead to you developing a career in archiving and heritage?

Growing up as the eldest in a large family puts you in a unique position of insight. I grew listening to my parent's stories of their childhood, both very different experiences on different continents. My father was born in Wazirabad, a railway town in Pakistan, also affectionately called; 'The Sheffield of Pakistan' because of its extensive stainless industry. My mother was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her grandfather settled there after travelling from the Punjab region of India in the late 1800s as one of the thousands of labourers from then British India.

Having experienced the struggles of their early years of making a home in London has been imprinted in the back of my mind for many years. At a time when everyday services integral to a Muslim community such as a mosque, halal meat or burial services had yet to be established. Fast forward twenty years, the same part of London now has several mosques, halal meat shops, various shops, and markets where ethnic clothes and vegetables can be bought. So much so, that they are also obtainable from mainstream high street fashion brands and foods from supermarkets. My younger siblings and subsequent generations are born into an environment where these amenities are well established and are expected. Having experienced life without them made me realise that these are not just social changes but our community's history and legacy.

It also foregrounds an inter-generational disconnect that reveals difficulties in creating bonds between our heritage and building foundations of a unique new heritage, which subsequently causes a perfect environment to create misinformation and an individual's chance of forging a sense of belonging and identity. As George Orwell once said: "The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history."

Without archives and knowing our history, our communities remain in a state of limbo. We are always seen as immigrants. Regardless of how many generations have resided here, there is always a sense of othering.

What is archiving and why is it important to develop collections?

A conventional explanation of an archive is that it is a collection usually consisting of documents or records that provide information about a place, institution, person, or group. These can include letters, photographs, film or audio recordings, minutes of meetings, publications, leaflets, newsletters, and many other examples relevant to a family or an organisation. Over time these records can become of historical significance.

These collections preserve the heritage, culture, and experiences of a community from a social, political, and personal perspective. I see an archive collection as a form of storytelling but with the added value of attaining historical significance over time that can be accessed for research by academics, historians, or the community.

The Everyday Muslim collections aim to capture our stories, memories, and experiences by recording oral history interviews and collecting documents and photographs. These can be related to a person, building or place. We have now recorded around 115 interviews and digitised several hundred photos documenting the diversity of and experiences of the Muslim community in Britain.

You founded Everyday Muslim as a way to address the noticeable absence of the historical and contemporary Muslim narrative from the archives, museums, and history books of Britain. How did you create Everyday Muslim from ideation to execution?

The initial project idea started as a Muslim Heritage Museum that would include sections for art/literature, Islamic history, scientific and other contributions, and the history of Muslims' in Britain. Its working title was ‘Verity.’ However, a chance meeting with someone from the Bishopsgate Institute, Library, and Archive made me realise that archives preserve and document history that reaches beyond temporary exhibitions and actualises the essence of legacy that transcends the present. This chance meeting led to my first archive project and partnership with Bishopsgate Institute to create our first collection, We Weren’t Expecting to Stay.

How do you think Muslims are represented and perceived in heritage spaces such as museums and archives, and why did you decide to take action?

The lack of representation and the limited focus and perception of the Muslim community led to the founding of the Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative. The representation I came across is very narrowly focused on the post-war migration period of South Asians from Commonwealth countries, who were given British citizenship to relieve the labour shortage in Britain's mills and factories. Whilst this is an undisputed truth, it completely ignores the racial, ethnic and social complexities of the Muslim community past and present alongside the evidence of many centuries of the history of Islam in Britain.

An intrinsic aim of the initiative is to place Muslim history and heritage directly within the context of broader British history. Are Muslims largely absent from British history and what can we do as a community to increase visibility?

Developing a family archive is a great way to increase the number of contemporary primary sources for future researchers and increase visibility in broader British history. Our stories, photos and experiences, such as childhood, socio/economic, work, the practice of faith, are all evidence that can help represent us not just in the context of history accurately but, in the present, academia, and for research in other areas.

Can you tell us more about the Everyday Muslim archive collection, why is it important to collect our own stories?

Collecting our own stories is much greater than buzzwords like 'representation,' 'authenticity' and 'legacy' but, behind these words is the reality that taking ownership of 'writing one's own history is actually creating a foundation from which our diverse communities can reflect on, grow and learn about each other. Most importantly, this foundation creates a sense of grounding, belonging, and a level of equity in the ownership of a place in the sense of it becoming 'home.'

Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative (EMHAI) was established in 2013 to create an archive collection to document and preserve the UK's lived Muslim experiences. The EMHAI archive collection is an ever-expanding collection of video and audio recordings and oral history interviews from Muslims of diverse ethnic backgrounds across the UK. These are included alongside a wide-ranging depository of approximately 2000 digitised documents and photographs that provide both a historical and contemporary narrative of the everyday lives and diversity of the Muslim communities living in Britain.

Which communities are currently well represented in archiving spaces in Britain?

As expected, the indigenous white, British community is best represented in the archives. But what is becoming more apparent is that if there are connections to other than European roots, they are either minimised or completely ignored. Therefore, we need more Asian and Black historians and archivists to support existing archives to uncover our hidden history in Britain. Yet, also to develop more contemporary collections through recording oral history interviews, collecting photos, documents, diaries or recipes to ensure a more powerful and louder authentic voice in the history of Britain.

How has migration and movement of Muslim communities affected the collection and documentation of archival materials?

There are two ways of answering this question. The first is to say that migration and movement are usually but not always initiated through a need of 'having to move'. When that is coupled with leaving family or a war situation, belongings are few and far between. So, it can be said that archiving becomes difficult as either belongings and places are left behind, lost, or destroyed. However, I feel that even in those situations, all is not lost. We have our memories, stories, and experiences that provide invaluable insight into those places' living memory and personal experiences that enhance the more traditional forms of archiving.

Which communities and Muslim led institutions are you currently exploring and collaborating with for your archival work?

Since 2018 I have been working with the Muslim Council of Britain on an ongoing collaboration called Proudly Muslim and Black. This came about at the end of our heritage and archive project; 'Exploring the Diversity of Black British Heritage in London' with the Black Muslim community, which consists of approximately 400 items of the following types of material: filmed oral history interviews, transcripts, photographs, PowerPoint presentations, lesson plans, filmed events/performances, and workshops, together with digitised exhibition panels and promotional videos.

At the end of the project, I felt that we needed to engage beyond the parameters of history. Consequently, our objectives dovetailed with the Muslim Council of Britain, which sought to correct the lack of representation and engagement in their organisation. We have accomplished several conferences, an event in Parliament and will be releasing a nearly 400-page report based on essays from the community with subjects ranging from the arts, history, sport, housing, BLM, and criminal justice.

I am also working with the University of Oxford to document and preserve the history, heritage, and culture of the Muslim community living, studying or working in Oxfordshire and creating a digital archive collection. Additionally, we aspire to use the interview recordings and other collected material to develop Oxford's Muslim history/heritage trail to highlight the community's established presence and its long-standing link to the University.

Finally, I am collaborating with the University of Cambridge Divinity Faculty to co-supervise two doctoral dissertations that will focus on expressions of Islam in the everyday lives of past or present Muslims in the UK.

How are you working with mainstream institutions to reinterpret their already existing collections, exploring the untold stories of Muslims?

We have worked with the British Museum and the National Army Museum to reinterpret objects and analyse documents to help them uncover history related to Muslims in various contexts and update labels and information in their collections.

Our project: Archiving the Heritage of Britain’s First Purpose-Built Mosque, we catalogued their existing archive, dating to the late 1800s and collected a contemporary archive collection of interviews and photographs. Our most enriching collaboration was with the Shah Jahan Mosque and the Brookwood Cemetery. The cemetery was the first formal Muslim burial ground and the inspiration for Britain's first Muslim Heritage Trails. The trails link three of the oldest known Muslim sites in Britain and another of Brookwood cemetery walk that identifies some of Brookwood’s most famous Muslim burials, including the great Qur’an translator Marmaduke Pickthall and a Princess related to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Do you have any plans to expand the development of Muslim archives beyond the UK and make connections with Muslim communities in other parts of the world?

Yes, absolutely. Muslim History Maps is a digital platform that I have been developing for a few months now. The map will enable users to upload information related to Muslim history; it will include categories such as people, landmarks, buildings and places, heritage trails, graves of significant people and museums, academic research, archive, and private collections. The map will provide a visual representation of Britain's Muslim history and illustrate how the history of Islam and Muslims in Britain is intrinsically linked to history worldwide.

The collection is both digital and physical. Where is the collection available for the public to access?

i) We Weren't Expecting to Stay - catalogued and available to search at the Bishopsgate Institute Library and Archive

ii) Archiving the Heritage of Britain's First Purpose-Built Mosque – catalogue available online at the Archives Hub

iii) Exploring the Diversity of Black British Muslim Heritage in London – the digital catalogue is available at George Padmore Institute.

We are also working on making all the collections digitally accessible online. This has proven to be more difficult for many reasons, and we are hoping to have the whole collection digitally available by Spring 2022.

What are your plans for the collection as it grows and develops?

We’d love to connect with local communities to develop new projects in the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland.

How can archive and public collection projects like Everyday Muslim help the development of Islamic arts and culture for the future?

The best example of how archives can help the development of arts and culture can be seen in the recent and ongoing research undertaken by Hassan Vawda: Religion, Secularism and Muslims in Britain and the British Art Museum: Is There a 'Religious Literacy' to be Considered in Strategy, Audiences and Programming?

Hassan has uncovered a long history of Muslim artists who have exhibited at the Tate and provides evidence of how neglect of representation in the archives can conceal the interactions of a community and its contribution. Other community-led endeavours are raising awareness of Muslim artists and are making conscious efforts to archive their work and artist profiles for future generations. Others such as Muslim History Tours uncover many Muslim connections in art and have incorporated them in very well-researched tours of cities around the UK. Such undertakings provide a foundation for new and upcoming arts and artists.

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The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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