Transnational religious practices of Muslims in Gujarat and South Africa

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Seminar Date
August 19, 2009
This paper presents in cursory form my current ethnographic Ph.D. research on the migratory and religious practices of Gujarati‐Muslims, particulary Sunni Vohras, in India and South Africa. It is embedded in the work and sponsored by the research group “Religion and Politics in Pre‐modern and Modern Cultures” at the University of Münster/Germany (www.religion‐und‐ My supervisor is Prof. Helene Basu who did extensive research among the “African” Muslim Sidi communities in South Gujarat and with Hindu bards in Kutchch. I use the method of multi‐sited fieldwork and literally “follow the people” who migrate from the one continent to the other and eventually back or somewhere else. I examine the cross‐currents of money, ideas, pictures and religious practices on‚ both sides‘. The particular interest lies in the tensions and chances, which the migration of friends, family members and co‐villagers brings for the Sunni Vohra villages in India, especially for the norms of religious and gender related behavior. These are the two fields where the differences between the Indian and South African society might be the most obvious. I further choose the method of “Close participation” (Spittler 2001) which prefers natural conversation over structured or standardized interviews. That includes living within a family in India, respectively in South Africa in a bachelor’s flat, for that is the most common habitat of the arriving migrants until they might marry. The first and prime contact in South Africa was the unmarried eldest son of my Indian guest family in the Bharuch area in Gujarat. I had taken courses of Hindi in Germany and picked up Gujarati in the village so I could and can at least explain my presence and project, although I’m always aware that it’s “not enough”. And of course the method of ‘following them’ faces limits: Gujaratis and specified Bharuchi Sunni Vohras migrate not only to South Africa but indeed favor to settle in UK (Bolton, Leicester, London), USA, Canada, Australia, Dubai, Saudi and other ‚western‘ and ‚Gulf‘ countries. Also within the African continent you can find Sunni Vohras from the Bharuch area in countries such as Mozambique or Malawi. As I observed, also the multiple migration to various (African) countries with or without temporary returns to India happens. So the ‘following’ is limited by resources in time and money what shapes the focus on two regions in South Africa, where the majority of Bharuchis cluster. Both sites lie within former Homelands, Transkei and Venda. The spatial distance of the newcomers from the “Indian hub” in Durban is striking. But while in the former Transkei the settlements and shops are rather dispersed and families are scarce the Venda site offers another impression: in the last 15‐20 years a multi‐generational community developed which provides not only two Mosques and a Muslim cemetery but also announces in the local newspaper its demand for a Gujarati speaking teacher at the Madressah (religious school). The fact of the two Mosques there is not only due to the size of the community but also reflects a religious separation between two strands within Indian Islam. Further it is notable that there are rather Eastern Cape dwellers who visit Venda, which they call ‘Little Gujarat’, than vice versa. In the paper I will briefly present my findings from India, concerned with the attitudes and expectations towards migration. Further I will give details about the South African research site.
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