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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.