This chapter discusses recent debates on the development of a spatial methodology in the study of diasporic religions and its use in research on minority religious communities, their transnational dimensions and their place and role in public life. These contributions are used to understand the multiple spatial layers in which transnational religious networks are located, and to question some of the discursive dichotomies created around diasporic religious communities such as regressive vs progressive, purity vs hybridity, continuity vs discontinuity and transnationalism vs localism. To exemplify and apply these theoretical reflections, the chapter uses the results of ethnographic fieldwork conducted as part of a larger project on Twelver Shii Muslim transnational networks that operate between Britain and the Middle East.
Religion and diaspora
Eickelman and Piscatori (1990), reflecting on the nature of travelling in Muslim societies, observe how certain forms of travel are enjoined by the Islamic tradition, such as the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), visitations of the shrines of Sufi saints or Shii Imams (ziyara) and journeying as part of one's religious training, in search for knowledge (rihlat talab al-‘ilm). Given the religious significance travelling obtains under these circumstances, the journey is not merely an act of moving from one place to another, but it becomes ‘an act of imagination’ (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1990, p xii), loaded with meanings beyond its mere physical dislocation. Alluding to the labour migration into Europe of people from the traditional heartland of the Muslim world, they also mention the subsequent ‘changes in religious institutions and practices’ (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1990, p 5) that have occurred, and illustrate the impact the physical displacement has had on the religious imagination of Muslim migrants. Revealing ambivalent dynamics, ‘travel creates boundaries and distinctions, even as travellers believe they are transcending them’ (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1990, p 5). The travellers’ crossing of boundaries leads to their encounter with ‘others’ and to a refined understanding of ‘difference and similarity’ (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1990, p 5).
These dynamics of ‘crossing and dwelling’ (Tweed, 2006) are further heightened when the journeying is not temporary but leads to a permanent dwelling, as diasporic communities emerge spatially distant from the homeland.