In the religion of Islam, a central tenant is the lifelong commitment to seek knowledge. Among many well-known sayings that are narrated from our Holy Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is “Seek knowledge even if it is in China.” While this experience did not bring me to China, it did bring me to the far and “exotic” Island of Madagascar. This is an account of some of my experiences as a Muslim anthropologist studying Muslims in Madagascar.
In the summer of 2017, I was presented with the opportunity to participate in a field course in Northern Madagascar from my university’s Anthropology department. Of course, I was charmed by the idea of going to this unique place, but cautious and worried that as a practicing and visibly Muslim woman I would run into some complications, however after many conversations with my professor and my parents, and ensuring that my cultural and religious needs would be accommodated, preparations for this exciting trip began.
The aim of this field course was meant to give students first-hand experience of real anthropological fieldwork. Among the six undergraduate students that participated, there were a range of topics from lemur conservation, to child rearing practices and do-it-yourself foreign aid projects. Naturally, when I discovered that around 8% of Madagascar’s population was Muslim, I decided to focus my research on that. Added to the fact that our 7 weeks on the Island would coincide directly with the Holy month of Ramadhan, I was excited at the prospect of fasting alongside Muslim brothers and sisters and learning about their lives as Malagasy Muslims.
Most of our time was spent in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana), a busy town at the northern most tip of the island, with a few shorter trips to rural villages and surrounding islands where I also had the chance to visit some mosques and meet fellow Muslims. This exposed me to the unique cultural features of the different communities there.
My research involved first and foremost participant observation, central to the anthropological method, this meant actively seeking information and knowledge by means of participating through living. For me, just the fact that I was already Muslim and planned to fast during this trip meant that I was already half way there. I had the chance to visit a number of mosques and madrasahs in Diego. I attended congregational prayers, Taraweeh, as well as a few fatihas, commemorating someone’s death. As it was the month of Ramadhan, the town was full of religious activity in honour of the holy month and many people invited me to their homes for iftar to break our fast together. I even joined a Muslims student association iftar at the University of Antsiranana where we shared large platters of food enjoying our meal together in the dark (no electricity). I also had the chance to meet and interview community leaders and religious teachers/educators who also spoke Arabic, learning more about the different activities and features of the various communities in Diego. At the end of the month, I was blessed (due to a delayed flight) to be able to attend the Eid prayers celebrating Eid al Fitr. Far from what I imagined, I was surprised at how diverse the Muslim communities were in just one region! I met and interacted with Native Malagasy Sunni Muslims, a colourful community of Comorian Sunnis, Indian Dawoudi Bohras, Khoja Twelver Shias, Malagasy Shia converts, and a diverse community of Muslim expats from around the world.
During this experience I was put into situations that made me think about what it meant to be a young, white, female, hijab-observing, Shia Muslim of Arab decent living in the West. I was forced to consider how these different parts of my identity impacted how I was treated, what spaces I had access to and how I was viewed by others. Being female meant I had access to women’s sections of mosques and women only gatherings. Being Shia meant that I was able to recognize the diversity in the different sects and actively searched for these communities. Wearing hijab meant that even though I was recognized as a foreigner, I was first and foremost Muslim which meant that the words “Salam ou alaykoom” were often exchanged as I walked through the streets going about my work. This was especially meaningful to me because even though I did not speak Malagasy, I could still greet fellow Muslims with this powerful phrase of peace. It was those experiences that made me feel a sense of unity that could transverse geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers.
I guess that is also one of the things I love about the anthropological perspective and attracts me to this field of study. My ability to personalize it, observing what it was like being a Muslim anthropologist studying Muslims, recognizing positionality in my study and how it may affect my findings. Moreover, this experience gave me the confidence and insight to further my studies and research into other Muslim communities and using my unique background and perspectives to approach different subjects.
Although the 7 weeks brought many challenges and I was away from home and all its associated comforts, my Malagasy Ramadhan proved to be one of the most memorable ones, as it allowed me to build lasting relationships. I also felt the power of my faith and its ability to connect its followers under one Muslim ummah.