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 centers and migrant communities can offer critical insights into identities that transcend sectarian and national identity and enable greater sensitivity in heritage preservation.

About the Project:

Yet, it is widely accepted that conflict and large-scale migrations over the past century, of minorities and Muslims, have 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.

AISS is implementing a cultural heritage project entitled “The Afterlives of Urban Muslim Asia: Alternative Imaginaries of Society and Polity” in collaborating with 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)

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 ethnoreligious 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.

This project commenced in January 2022 and it is funded by a grant from the Art and Humanities Research Council- AHRC[KD1] .


  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.



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.

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