Mapping Murid expatriates in Europe and North America

Unrelated to my recent field excursion to New York (see previous post), an article has just been published in Urban Studies which presents some research I conducted in that city in 2008. “Globalizing Touba: Expatriate Disciples in the World City Network” attempts to measure Touba’s global reach by mapping the activities of Murid disciples in western Europe and North America.

View of West 116th Street in New York City. This district in Harlem is called “Little Senegal.” Most of the Senegalese businesses are run by Murid disciples. (source: Wikipedia commons)

The Murid tariqa is no longer a strictly Senegalese affair. Murid disciples have settled in numerous cities in the global North. These expatriate communities are principally structured by local religious associations, called dahiras. Nearly every city Murids settle in will have at least one dahira. Its principal functions are to facilitate devotional practices (prayer, dhikr, samâ’) for its members, to organize public cultural events, and to maintain relations with the “head office” in Senegal. Depending on its membership, a dahira can also serve as a student organization, or even as a small business association. Dahiras often have two designations: an official poetic or esoteric name, as in “Dahira Massalikoul Djinane” (named for one of Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba’s Arabic-language poems), as well as a matter-of-fact name like “Dahira Touba-Toulouse.” Whether one or the other is used, these names place the association and its members in spiritual relation to Touba.

Murids living abroad have also create various national-scale organizations, designated as “federations” or “foundations,” to coordinate events and initiatives involving dahiras in more than one city. The most important expatriate communities have even opened full-fledged community centers, called “Kër Sëriñ Touba” (House of the Sheikh of Touba), in order to consolidate community life.

In order to assess Touba’s growing global reach, in the spring of 2008 I conducted a web search looking for these various Murid institutions. Keywords included both “dahira” and “Touba,” as well as such other terms as “Mame Diarra,” “Porokhane,” “Darou…,” “Khadim,” “Mbacké” and “Lamp Fall,” all of which related to Murid history, geography and identity. The global webscape of homepages, chat rooms and forums was scanned in order to constitute an inventory of Murid dahiras outside of Senegal.

The internet search produced a list of 47 cities across western Europe and 16 cities in North America which harbor Murid dahiras. Other dahiras were found in Morocco (3 cities), Cairo, Riyadh, Johannesburg and Tokyo.

Distribution of Murid institutions in western Europe, May 2008

France, and its university cities (Nanterre, Aix-en-Provence, Lille) in particular, remains the center of institutionalized Murid life in western Europe. There is also a strong Murid presence in cities across the north and northeast of Italy.

Distribution of Murid institutions in North America, May 2008

In North America, Murid institutions are concentrated in a few large cities, and particularly in the traditional eastern gateway cities (New York City, Washington DC-Baltimore, Montreal).

Among the most visible activities organized by Murid disciples in the US are the nationally coordinated Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Day celebrations, held annually in many major cities. Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Days involve a variety of public religious and cultural activities: special outdoor prayer sessions, recitations of Ahmadou Bamba’s religious poems, conferences and screenings, exhibits, picnics and parades through the streets. Visiting sheikhs from Touba will tour the country attending these events. In the summer of 2008 Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Days were held on the following dates: in Los Angeles on July 23rd, in Washington DC on July 26th, in New York City on July 28th, in Detroit on August 1st, in Montreal on August 3rd, in Memphis on August 5th, in Cincinnati on August 8th, in Atlanta on August 11th and in Chicago on August 13th.

The inventory of Murid institutions abroad is surely incomplete, as some dahiras do not have a presence on the WWW. For example, missing from this inventory are the numerous Murid dahiras located throughout West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, the Gambia) and eastward to the Indian Ocean (Mauritius). These dahiras of the global South are far less reliant on e-mail and the WWW for their connectivity—their members are more likely to communicate with each other by cell phone and text messaging than by e-mail—and therefore cannot be so easily spotted by using internet search engines.

Touba’s global reach is not solely contingent on the activities of Murid associations and institutions. The businesses expatriate Murids set up also contribute to the international renown of the Senegalese holy city. The Murids have long been celebrated for their work ethic and the concept of khidmah (“work,” “service”) is a well developed Murid doctrine. On the one hand, khidmah consists of service to God, to one’s community and to one’s spiritual guide (the sheikh). On the other, it refers to gainful and productive labor, so as not to be a burden on others. Expatriate Murids are most active in the service sector and gains from these activities are remitted home, to families in Touba and elsewhere who often invest the funds in yet other businesses, or in real-estate.

Given its marked entrepreneurial culture, the USA has proven very fertile ground for Murid enterprise. In order to assess expatriate Murid businesses in the US, a search of on-line yellow pages was conducted, also in the spring of 2008. As with the search for dahiras, keywords included “Touba” as well as other typical Murid names. Murid entrepreneurs consistently use these names for their businesses because they serve as conduits for the barakah (divine grace) channeled through Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba and the holy city of Touba. The snap-shot inventory of yellow pages revealed a total of 135 businesses across the US (and a few in Toronto, Canada) with typically Murid names. Using Google Earth, I was able to precisely locate each of these businesses. Though these registered, tax-paying businesses must represent barely the tip of the iceberg of Murid economic life in North America, analysis of their types, location and distribution proved quite revealing.

Distribution of Murid businesses in North America, May 2008

First, the mapping of Murid businesses reveals that the Muridiyya has penetrated North American space much more deeply than is apparent when only its institutions are considered. Small and medium-sized cities across the South and the Mid-West, including places as seemingly remote from global migration flows as Spring Lake MI, Wichita KS and Spartanburg SC, harbor active Murid communities.

44 of the 135 businesses inventoried in North America (equivalent to 33% of the total) are located in the New York City metropolitan area. This confirms what researchers and journalists have been publishing for the past decade; New York City is the single most important center of Murid activity abroad. 18 businesses are clustered in Harlem; 12 of them along two city blocks on West 116th Street. The Harlem cluster is most varied in terms of type of business, including stores that sell religious objects, DVDs and CDs, clothing and cosmetics, electronics, restaurants, shipping and money transfer services and wholesaling. This cluster of businesses reflects a residential concentration of Senegalese and Murid immigrants; West 116th Street has even been dubbed “Little Senegal” by the New York press. Moreover, New York City’s major Murid institutions, such as the Kër Sëriñ Touba, are located in Harlem and Murids make regular use of the Malik Shabazz Mosque, located on the corner West 116th Street and Malcolm X Avenue. Murids have thus settled in one of the heartlands of African-American Islam.

Location of Murid businesses in New York City’s “Little Senegal” (West 116th Street between 8th Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard)

While in New York in May 2008 I was able to verify the West 116th Street cluster on-site. Given the preeminence of Murid-run businesses at its core, “Little Senegal” may just as well be called “Little Touba;” images and referents to the Murid holy city abound throughout this ethnoscape. In March 2009 the urban fabric of this “Touba in New York,” and the financial systems which undergird it, were studied by the Architectural League of New York and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture in an Urban Omnibus project.

Though I did not set out looking for it, gender emerged as one of the most important findings of the analysis of Murid businesses in the US. The two largest categories of business: “African hair braiding” and “fashion, cosmetics and jewelry,” along with restaurants, are typically women’s businesses. It turns out that women are responsible for running about two-thirds of the Murid businesses in the US. Hair braiding in particular has become the leading profession of Senegalese female immigrants in the US. Their hair braiding salons, as well as their African fashion and cosmetics boutiques, can be found in cities of every size. Some are located in traditionally African-American inner city neighborhoods, but others can be found in the suburban strip malls of sprawling Middle America.

Web ad for Touba African Hair Braiding, a Murid hair salon in Tampa FL.

I first presented my piece of research on expatriate Murid communities at a conference in New York City in May 2008. “Globalizing Mystical Islam: Exploring the Murid Diaspora in Europe and North America” was held at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture and was co-organized by MICA (the Murid Islamic Community of America), one of the major Murid institutions in the US. I then submitted the article to Urban Studies, a peer-review academic journal. You can download the complete article as a pdf file by clicking here.

Photographer David Katzenstein has posted photos of this year’s Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Day in Harlem on this web site.

Articles related to expatriate Murid communities

  • Babou, Cheikh Anta (2008). Migration and Cultural Change: Money, “Caste,” Gender, and Social Status among Senegalese Female Hair Braiders in the United States. Africa Today 55(2): 3-22.
  • Babou, Cheikh Anta (2002). Brotherhood Solidarity, Education and Migration: The Role of the Dahiras among the Murid Muslim Community of New York. African Affairs 101: 151-170.
  • Bava, Sophie (2001). The Mouride Dahira: Between Marseille and Touba. ISIM Review 8: 7.
  • Carter, D. M. (1997). States of Grace: Senegalese in Italy and the New European Immigration. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Diop, A. M. (1994). Les associations islamiques sénégalaises en France. Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara 8: 7-15.
  • Diouf, Mamadou (2000). The Senegalese Murid Trade Diaspora and the Making of a Vernacular Cosmopolitanism. Trans. S. Rendall. Public Culture, 12 (3): 679-702.
  • Ebin, Victoria (1996). Making Room versus Creating Space: the Construction of Spatial Categories by Itinerant Mouride Traders. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, edited by B. Daly Metcalf, 92-109. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Fall, Papa Demba (2002). Ethnic and Religious Ties in an African Emigration: Senegalese Immigrants in the United States. Studia Africana 13: 81-90.
  • Malcomson, Scott L. (1996). West of Eden: The Mouride Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Transition 71: 26-45.
  • Ross, Eric (2011). Globalizing Touba: Expatriate Disciples in the World City Network, in Urban Studies,vol. 48, #14, pp. 2929-2952.
  • Salem, Gérard (1981). De la brousse sénégalaise au Boul. Mich’: le système commerciale mouride en France. Cahiers d’études africaines 21 (81-83): 267-88.
  • Salzbrunn, Monika (2004). The Occupation of Public Space through Religious and Political Events: How Senegalese Migrants Became a Part of Harlem, New York. Journal of Religion in Africa 34 (4): 468-492.
  • Stoller, Paul (1996). Spaces, Places, and Fields: The Politics of West African Trading in New York City’s Informal Economy. American Anthropologist 98 (4): 776-88.
  • Tall, Serigne Mansour (2004). Senegalese Emigrés: New Information and Communication Technologies. Review of Political Economy, 31 (99): 31-48.
  • Tall, Serigne Mansour (2002). Mouride Migration and Financing. ISIM Review 9: 36.
  • Tall, Serigne Mansour (1998). Un instrument financier pour les commerçants et émigrés mourides de l’axe Dakar-New York : Kara International Exchange. Les Opérateurs économiques et l’état au Sénégal, edited by L. Marfaing and M. Sow, 73-90. Paris: Karthala.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in cities, conferences, field trips, map work, publication, Sufism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mapping Murid expatriates in Europe and North America

  1. Pingback: Teaching a seminar on contemporary Senegalese Sufism | Eric Ross, academic

  2. Pingback: Murids of Morocco gather to celebrate Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba | Eric Ross, academic

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