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Prayer in the City

The Irresistible Appeal of “Sacred” Spaces 


The international workshop “Prayer in the City - Islam, Sacred Space and Urban Life”, held at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies on 26-27 June 2009, delved into some of the questions central to the research activities hosted at the recently founded institution. In twelve case studies, international researchers ranging from professors to PhD students based at the BGSMCS, investigated the interplay of Muslim sacred spaces, religious practices and everyday life in cities of Africa and South Asia.

The aim of the workshop was to explore the questions of how urban cultural, geographical and physical conditions shape religious life and how religion affects social and physical environments, as well as how representations of sacred space impact on both religious practices and urban life. Hereby, the original workshop draft proposed to look at a) sacred spaces as centres of religious practices and landmarks in urban space, b) religious practices and festivities as possible catalysts of urban public sphere and c) religious and urban everyday “rhythms”.                                       

Discussions on aspects of “urbanity” and urban everyday life remained rather secondary due to a stronger focus on, and interest for, practices and representations connected to sacred places. The latter have often been objects of controversies in the history of different religions, whereby current research is focussing on showing that specific social settings in various cities actively affected the type and quality of debates and measurements. For instance, the coexistence of different religious groups in cities often impacted not only on society, but also on religious discourses; nowadays’ repeated efforts by the state and its representatives to reorganise or control sacred places are carrying on new debates.

On the one hand, behavioural rules and social differentiations may be annulled at sacred spaces – for a certain time and, generally, through the mediation of certain practices and rituals. This justifies those researchers that have recognised a linkage between sacred spaces and/or religious rituals and utopias, and defined sacred spaces “utopian spaces” within not-so-utopian urban environments. On the other hand, the debate was vibrant regarding the question whether “sacred” spaces should be rather defined as heterotopias in Foucault’s sense, which redirected the focus towards a consideration of the political frameworks in which they are embedded.

Certainly the fact that sacred spaces – mainly religious buildings and shrines – represent points of convergence of various notions of memory, heritage, locality, religious practice as well as identity itself, and that latter may even diverge or conflict with each other, makes them crucial for negotiation processes that involve broader groups of society and public opinion. An important aspect in this regard concerns the claim, on the part of different social actors, to control or “own” these spaces, whereby the perception of “belonging” to them was described in many contributions.