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Quba’s Saida Abdul Aziz (front) and Penn’s Carol Muller pose outside the Quba Institute building on Lancaster Avenue.

Carol Muller’s ethnomusicology class partners with a West Philadelphia Islamic school to explore the sounds of the Qur’an, and each other’s communities.

By Susan Frith | Photography by Sabina Louise Pierce

Sidebar | World Beats and Local Knowledge

“The last phrase [of the Muslim call to prayer] is drawn out in a sustained, emotive cadence. It embodies the Qur’anic sound quality of huzn, or existential sadness at the separation of humans from their source. The reminder of that separation is also a call to turn back to home.” —Michael Sells, Hearing the Qur’an: The Early Revelations

The imam’s plaintive call rises to the third floor of the Quba Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, where swift vacuuming has transformed a classroom decorated with posters on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution into a place for prayer. An orange sign on the door warns: “Proficiency is not optional.”

Up in the front of the room, a cluster of young boys do their best not to squirm. Behind them sit women cradling babies, and schoolgirls wearing headscarves of plum, black, and azure. Additional worshipers occupy separate floors below: women unaccompanied by children, and then men and older boys. Imam Luqman Ahmad, who’s leading this Friday’s prayer service, addresses them all with urgency:

“The way that Islam was revealed and practiced by the Prophet has been turned inside out,” he says. “All of the things that are important to the believer, all assets that mean something, are internal: … patience, piety, perseverance, kindness, goodness, justice, mercy.” But Muslim society now focuses on external actions to measure success. “Gotta condemn that! And grab that! … Talk about that! Dress like that! ”

I’m sitting in the back with Andaiye Qaasim, one of the Penn graduate students from Dr. Carol Muller’s Field Methods in Ethnomusicology course. We scribble in our notebooks. Our heads are uncovered. But our presence here—at this Islamic school and mosque on Lancaster Avenue, a trolley ride from Penn’s campus—is greeted with only a few curious stares.

Muller’s students spent the spring semester here working on projects about the school’s history, Qur’anic recitation, children’s song, and even the role of hip-hop in Islam. As they learned to write field notes, transcribe interviews, and create videos, they got a condensed view of the dissertation experience ahead of them. In turn, they paired up with Quba students in eighth through twelfth grades for what Muller, associate professor of music, called a “mutually beneficial” collaboration. “What we’re trying to do,” she explained at the beginning of the semester, “is help this community of students come to campus and feel that a place like Penn is not out of their reach.”

The course was part of a broader research, teaching, and service project on music and spirituality that Muller started five years ago with the support of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships. In a series of classes alternately taught by Muller and assistant professor of music Tim Rommen, undergraduate and graduate students have ventured into West Philadelphia churches and a retirement community to collect the stories and sounds of gospel music and to interview jazz musicians.

As an ethnomusicologist who grew up in South Africa and studied music and dance performance in its black townships during apartheid, Muller sees such “local knowledge” as vitally important and hopes to eventually combine the material in an online archive that the public can use to research their own communities.

The Quba project adds a Muslim school and masjid, or place of worship, to the mix, focusing on the spoken word of the Qur’an, which, to an outsider, possesses many musical qualities.

In Hearing the Qur’an, religion scholar Michael Sells writes: “The sound of Qur’anic recitation can move people to tears,” noting that recordings of accomplished reciters are popular sellers in the music stores of major Muslim cities.

Quba’s own founder, the late Sheikh Nafea Muhaimin, was an electrician and jazz saxophonist who was drawn to Islam by the sounds of the Qur’an recited by his Muslim musician friends, says Saida Abdul Aziz, the administrative-services coordinator at Quba overseeing the exchange with Muller’s class. “He said, ‘This sounds like music to me, and I want to know about this music.’” To learn more, he came to a community in Philadelphia called the International Muslim Brotherhood (IMB), which had been created in 1949 to support the practices of Sunni Muslims living in an urban setting. “We were friends later in his life, and he said to me, ‘Saida, one day I was standing in the front of the line with my finger up [and testifying] that there is no God but Allah, and I was thinking, How did I get here? I was outside trying to learn to be a musician better. And he laughed and said, ‘All of a sudden, I realized I was in front of the whole congregation. I was the imam.’”

Under his leadership, the IMB opened a weekend school, the Quba Institute for Advanced Studies, in 1973. (It was the precursor for several other programs, including the full-time day school that opened in 1992.) But Sheikh Nafea Muhaimin felt that he couldn’t be a good imam without immersing himself in the Arabic language. He moved with his wife and children to Medina, Saudi Arabia, for additional studies.

It was a challenging time for his oldest son, Anwar, who was pushed back from sixth grade to first grade, where he was teased and called names. But Anwar quickly advanced, memorizing the entire Qur’an by age 15 and graduating first in his high school before earning the title of sheikh at the Islamic University of Medina.

Today, Sheikh Anwar Muhaimin is CEO and Imam Mufti of the IMB and its subsidiaries. His brother, Anas Muhaimin, is also an imam there, as well as the organization’s chief financial officer.

John Meyers (left) and Ibrahim Muhaimin collaborated on a project about Quba’s founder (and Ibrahim’s grandfather) Sheikh Nafea Muhaimin and his family.

When a scholar enters any community to do research,certain issues have to be negotiated, and when that community is a place of worship, there can be some “tricky moments,” Carol Muller says. (Her class would later experience a few with Quba.) Where do you put the microphone, for example, when a congregant is giving a spirit-filled testimony? How does a non-believer respond when asked to join in prayer? Even Muller—whose own father was a Presbyterian minister—experienced a moment of discomfort during one gospel-music project when everyone was asked to hold hands at a church gathering. “I was next to a male student and said, ‘Don’t you ever accuse me of sexual harassment!’”

Before beginning their research at Quba, Muller and her students posed questions about the community’s expectations of them. Among other things, they learned that they didn’t have to dress differently to attend prayer services there, and that it was all right for them to film people in the school. “We had a whole lot of assumptions, and not one of them was correct,” she says.

“We want people to be modest in their appearance, so they fit in, but covering makes people feel you’re something you’re not,” explains Abdul Aziz. “And you shouldn’t have to do that. It’s not your religion.”

Abdul Aziz has lived all over, from the Pine Barrens to Egypt; as someone who has dealt with a wide array of people, she knows how to read intentions. That comes in handy when she’s trying to discern the motivations of parents who want to send their children to Quba. If they expect to avoid academic rigor, they’ve come to the wrong place, she tells them.

Abdul Aziz also wanted to make sure that Muller’s motivations were sincere, so she asked her to commit to a three-year partnership with the school. “The children that you start with in eighth grade, I want them to believe that by the time they get to 11th grade and have to apply to colleges, that they can actually go to Penn,” she told her. “And they won’t do that if you come for one year and then leave.”

Her forthright manner underscores the unusual position she holds as a woman at a Muslim institution. “I sit in the imams’ office as an equal partner with the imams in the decisions and programs that are developed for this masjid,” she says. “Our imam believes that God made men and women for a reason, and they don’t think alike and they don’t approach things alike. It provides balance. And without [women] in every place listening and having a voice, you’ve lost half your brain power.” (“Some-times it becomes kind of heated,” she adds. “Because I don’t see things like them.”)

“We want our children to learn the value of diversity in gender, in race and culture, in thought and educational level. It’s variety that will make you a much more productive human being and your organization a much more productive organization.” Today’s students will “have to compete on a world scale with people who have languages and history and culture that extend way beyond theirs,” she says. “They’re going to have to learn to compete and get along with people who don’t look at things the way they do.”

Quba’s involvement with Penn actually goes back to the 1960s, when Penn international students came to the IMB to teach Arabic to non-native speakers. In the 1970s the University’s Muslim Student Association sponsored a mentoring project there.

Penn and Quba students lost contact for a while, until Matt Malone, now a senior in the College, came to tutor through the Center for Community Partnerships a few years ago. “I’ll never forget the day he got off the trolley,” Abdul Aziz says. “He was white as the driven snow, and it was a very hot day. I thought, ‘This kid needs some sun block.’ He looked so out of place.” Malone’s first assignment was to work with a Cambodian student who barely spoke in any language, and to “teach him how to speak English and to be an American,” she explains. “Right away Matt embraced us and embraced these children.”

Under Malone’s tutelage that student “has excelled and his parents speak better English,” Abdul Aziz says. “Matt made our community accept Penn.”

By the time Muller’s students came along, “It was, ‘Oh, you’ve got some more Penn kids. Are they like Matt? Are they going to tutor?’ Now the neighbors start to look out for the kids from Penn and welcome them.”

As a community with its doors propped open a little wider than the average mosque, Quba draws its share of curious visitors—from Christian ministers to college students, even a mother-daughter pair trying to learn more about different religious traditions. One young, non-Muslim man who recently dropped by with a friend admitted, “We heard you were all terrorists. So we wanted to see what it was like to be around terrorists.” He immediately looked horrified at what he’d said.

Rather than get mad, they welcomed his bluntness, Abdul Aziz says. “We all laughed and we were like, ‘See, no bombs!’”

“We tell people to ‘Ask the things you’ve always wanted to ask Muslims.’ Maybe you never knew anybody [who was Muslim], you just see people on the street and of course you’re not going to ask them something that may be offensive. You just walk around Philadelphia filled up with fear and questions.”

One person who seems to have spent a lifetime overcoming fears and asking questions is Muller, whose family interacted with black South Africans during apartheid in ways that many whites did not. Muller’s father was involved with a ministry of reconciliation and ordained the first black elder in a white Presbyterian church. “Just to have black South Africans in your service was a radical idea,” she says.

As an ethnomusicology student, Muller studied with gumboot dancers, and later, with a religious community, in the black townships around the city of Durban. The states of emergency declared by the South African government and the oppressive tactics used to deal with political unrest sparked flashes of violence inside the townships, and Muller relied on residents to look out for her safety. “There were times when my mother thought I’d never come home alive,” she says.

“Carol’s great,” says graduate student Jennifer Kyker. “I feel like her work and way of thinking is really unconventional and pushes you to think beyond the limits.” She adds: “The reason I’m an ethnomusicologist is that I feel like being involved in someone’s cultural expression is a good way to break down barriers that might otherwise exist between people and communities.”

When she enrolled in Muller’s field-methods class last spring, Kyker was already familiar with the basics of fieldwork. “For me the most interesting experience [in Muller’s class] was connecting with [a Muslim] community and learning more about that particular reality in Philadelphia,” she says. As an undergraduate at a women’s college, Kyker had watched Muslim friends pray in their dorm room, but she had never been to a formal prayer service. “I was anxious about coming to Quba, but from the first time I went there, I felt very welcomed by the community, especially the women who were there.”

“I feel like when you’re a public servant, you have an obligation to always serve your clients with currency, to always develop yourself so you can be the best resource for folks,” Sister Suad Islam Gr’00 is saying. Islam is the principal of the Quba Institute’s day school for pre-kindergartners through twelfth-graders. She has an energetic demeanor that is enhanced by the vibrant purple head scarf she is wearing this late-winter afternoon and an intellectual curiosity that has taken her to the classrooms of Cheyney University, Penn (for a principal certification and doctoral work), Harvard, Oxford, and, most recently, Temple University, where she was wrapping up her dissertation over the summer. “People tend to think that if you have advanced degrees that you’re done, but I have truly embraced the notion of lifelong learning,” she says.

Islam’s own grandfather was born a slave (“I come from old people,” she says), and she has educators in her family going back to Reconstruction. It’s this sense of history and community responsibility that ties her to the field of education. She became a Muslim 17 years ago, and after teaching all over the Philadelphia public school district, she joined Quba in 2001 to overhaul its academic programs. It was a year that put her faith in the spotlight, but Islam, who is married to Imam Anas Muhaimin, welcomes the attention that has come to her school since then. “It’s an opportunity to dispel propaganda,” she says, and show that “we are a peaceful, law-abiding people.”

Islam tells her visitors to imagine they’re at the United Nations. In addition to African Americans, the student population includes Bengalis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Indians, Malaysians, and Sudanese, she explains. “You have a real cornucopia of people whose connection is the Arabic language.”

The school packs in academic subjects, including Arabic, in the morning. After lunch and prayer, Qur’anic studies begin. Quba’s objective is to have students reading the book by the time they’re in fourth grade. “We hope to be a standard-bearer in Islamic education in Pennsylvania,” she says.

Islam views Muller’s class as a chance for Quba and Penn students to connect in meaningful ways. “I’m really big on reflection and introspection and people traveling paths together.”

At Friday prayer services, men and women sit separately. But visitors—including women with uncovered heads—are welcome.

To borrow Islam’s metaphor of “the journey,” the travelers in Muller’s class hit a giant pothole halfway through the course.

“I got an email from Saida [Abdul Aziz] … saying that ‘We need to know what this project is all about, because it seems like people are coming and taking of our kids and not giving anything back,’” Muller recalls.

She wrote back, asking for their patience and explaining, “The students are just now getting to the point that they’re beginning to do collaborative work.’”

The response came quickly: Every step of the project needed to be put in writing—and soon.

“True to Ivy League students, they charged in,” Abdul Aziz recalls with a bemused smile. “They came in as world leaders, and we reined them in, because we’re world leaders, too.”

Quba wanted everything to be planned out with dates, and for Penn students to get permission slips from the parents. “In the end it wasn’t just the community that felt better, they felt better,” she says. “They knew at every interaction what the purpose of the interaction was and what they would get out of it.”

“This is a diversion from the way in which ethnomusicology does its work,” Muller admits. “Because people go hang out in a community, [and] it’s one person [doing the research]. You’re developing your relationship over a longer period of time, and the sort of returns are not that carefully mapped out. How will the community actually benefit? We sort of say strange things like, ‘You’ll be well-known through our writing.’ Well, to whomwill you be known? So it was different, and actually I preferred this process.”

About two-thirds of the way through the semester, Quba students pay a few visits to Penn’s music lab to learn about video editing and have a say in how they’re portrayed in the Penn students’ final projects.

“My project focuses on [Quba’s founder] and his family,” John Meyers explains as he opens a clip on iMovie for Ibrahim Muhaimin, the founder’s grandson, to watch. “I’m just sort of telling this story of how music works in this family because one of the stereotypical views of Islam is that if you’re a strict Muslim, you can’t listen to music,” Meyers says. “And at this mosque, at least, that’s definitely not the case.”

Another Quba student, Naji, gives his Penn partners, Darien Lamen and Ian MacMillen, a lesson in Qur’anic recitation. Though he’s only in high school, Naji is proficient enough to teach some of the younger Quba students in an after-school program. He demonstrates the differences in sound when he’s enunciating every letter of the alphabet and when he’s reciting with greater intensity but less precision. “Some people are so good they’ve got both in there,” he says.

Jennifer Kyker has just completed an interview for her project on women and recitation and is reviewing it with the Quba student who filmed it. Muller comes by to praise a zoom-in shot. “She’s better with the camera than I am,” Kyker says.

In the meantime, Ibrahim has watched himself on the video and gives his approval to most of Meyers’ footage. “He did an excellent job.”

Meyers laughs. “I make him look very thoughtful, which is not too hard,” he says.

‘We cut out one part where I was going like this,” Ibrahim clasps his hands to demonstrate. “I was thinking to calm myself and focus so I [wouldn’t] say something I’ll regret, and see, right there I actually got caught on camera.” He points to the screen and smiles. “Somebody’s going to think I’m some kind of monk or a meditator.”

For Andaiye Qaasim, whose project was focusing on hip-hop and Islam, it was time to start over. The school’s leaders felt that the video footage taken during one of her interviews had crossed the line in how it represented young women at the school.

Qaasim explains after the semester is over that she didn’t begin her project with any particular plan, but began talking to different people to collect their views about hip-hop. She got to know a few of the young women at the school and gathered them for a group interview. “It erupted into a session of silliness,” she says. “We were talking, laughing, joking, and that’s when they started performing different lyrics. I didn’t necessarily think I would use the footage, because it wasn’t video quality, but I thought there were interesting things in it.”

Abdul Aziz says there were multiple problems with the footage, including the fact that one of the young women—a new Muslim who had not yet made her profession of faith, or shahadah—opened her headscarf.

“Most Muslim [women] artists don’t sing in public,” she adds. “They’ll speak to music, but it won’t be a melodious singing kind of voice. Young women who are representing a Muslim institution should not do that out of respect for their parents and out of respect for the institution.

“They were playing music on our prayer area, they were singing something like 50 Cent, something that would be totally inappropriate for anyone’s prayer area, and would have been totally inappropriate to represent Penn as well,” Abdul Aziz says. “We didn’t want anything to happen that would damage our relationship with the community and what they thought about Penn. Because you know what they would think. They would think Penn is going to come here and uncover our daughters and try to lead our kids off to do things they know are bad.”

Though she was initially frustrated with the decision to pull the video, Qaasim says she felt better after she sat down to talk with Abdul Aziz and asked, for example, about different expectations for men and women. “We talked about each of our personal views and our own faith backgrounds and our political views,” Qaasim recalls. (Her own father was Muslim, but he converted to Christianity when she was in high school.) “Sister Saida said to me, ‘Do I look like a woman that can be easily silenced?’ It was a really good learning experience,” says Qaasim, and she’s come to realize that the goal of cross-cultural communication is “not coming to the same world view. It’s about being able to understand someone’s perspective.”

She thinks the experience will help her navigate other unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations that could arise in her doctoral research on how hip-hop is being used politically within the North African community of Marseilles. Qaasim hopes to keep her Quba friends posted on her new adventures.

On an early May evening, it’s Penn’s turn to put out the welcome mat. A few of Muller’s students stand in front of the newly renovated Fisher-Bennett Hall, eagerly greeting anyone who looks like they might be there to attend their end-of-semester celebration.

Inside, nearly a hundred guests of all ages help themselves to a casual buffet, bringing their plates back to classroom desks lined up in rows. It’s an awkward space for dinner, but the main attractions are the students’ video presentations, which are about to begin.

Muller presents flowers to Sheri Halpern C’06, a graduating intern who had served as a helpful liaison between her class, the Center for Community Partnerships, and the Quba Institute. Another bouquet goes to Abdul Aziz. “I’m so happy that I’m about brought to tears,” she says. “This is [President Amy Gutmann’s] dream to bring Penn faculty, students, and community together with members of the community at large. Carol and her students have done an extraordinary job in seeing this happen in such a short period of time, and, God willing, they have laid the foundation [for more involvement], along with the rest of the Quba faculty.”

The first of the videos, created by Gavin Steingo and Roger Grant, spills over with cuteness and helps loosen things up. The school’s youngest stars—as well as the documentary makers—look into the camera and announce their birthdays. Then the children sing-shout a song about their five senses while their teacher expresses her belief that the fun of singing actually helps them prepare for the responsibility of Qur’anic recitation.

In Meyers’ documentary, Ibrahim interviews his own father, Sheikh Anwar, and asks what he thinks about young people like himself listening to hip hop. The imam focuses on the message of the music, and says, “I don’t think Islam comes to take away people’s cultural expression.”

Qaasim’s video comes at the end. It includes an interview with one of Quba’s teachers, who is a hip-hop artist, and new footage of some of the young women at the school discussing rap and performing poetry. “I just thought that what she did was brilliant,” Muller says a few weeks later. “I didn’t even know until [the night of the celebration] that there was even a video from her.”

“I felt pleased with it,” Qaasim says. “I wanted something I thought the students would enjoy … where I thought they were being themselves.”

“Incredible,” Abdul Aziz sums up the evening. “Incredible.”

By the end of the semester Muller’s students did more than work with Quba students on the technical aspects of documentary making. Sheri Halpern brought them to Penn’s admissions office for a peek at the college-application process.

“They talked to them about Penn. They took them by the Civic House and said, ‘You can come and do this.’ They took them for ice cream. They got to know the kids’ parents,” Abdul Aziz says. “They did all kinds of things to make a real relationship.”

“Carol is wonderful,” she adds. “She extends herself with her students and the community. She met with us innumerable times on her own personal time to set this program in place. And she personally committed herself in this process by bringing her family” to events at Quba.

That commitment continues as Muller and some of her students work with Quba this school year to help integrate its extracurricular activities around a central theme of loss, focusing, in part, on ways that artistic performance could be a force for healing. Quba students, in turn, may teach Jennifer Kyker’s undergraduate World Music class a few things about Qur’anic recitation—as well as what it’s like to be on both sides of the camera.

Muller was equally moved by Quba’s hospitality and the learning experience. “I came out believing in my discipline, and what we’re doing,” she says. “I think the fundamental shift forward is when you do this work in America—what does it mean for one citizen to go to another citizen? It’s not Ph.D.s going to high school or elementary students. We are equal citizens. We may have different skills and different knowledge that we bring to the table, but we each bring something to the table.”


A couple dozen students are gathered in a circle on the brick plaza by the Fisher Fine Arts Library, exhaling puffs of warm air into the cold. Dr. Carol Muller stands in the center, wearing a pair of tall black boots that she’s just stuffed with scarves for a little extra leg protection. She’s here to demonstrate a South African dance tradition known as gumboot for this undergraduate World Music class.

“Have any of you been to the mines before? A coal mine? A gold mine? It’s a pretty [scary] experience, two to three miles underground. You need to listen to the person who’s calling out instructions,” she shouts. “And that’s what gumboot is doing. I am the boss today and you are my workers, and you need to listen to me. When I say 1, 2, 3, 4, I want to see your legs go.”

Muller starts with a steady four-beat stomp. Then she adds some syncopation. “One! TwoThreeFour. One! TwoThreeFour.” When the boot slapping and leg smacking are added on, things get more complicated. A few students make up their own moves as if to hide the fact that they’re not quite getting the hang of it. Muller goes through it again, performing and reviewing each series of steps with the class before adding the next variation.

“This is not how I learned gumboot dance,” Muller explains. “I had to keep watching and hope I got it right.”

For her own lessons Muller, who is white, crossed illegally into the black townships around the South African city of Durban to study with a team of gumboot dancers led by Blanket Mkhiz. (Blanket was her teacher’s stage name, given for his warm and protective persona.) His protectiveness was essential for Muller, who was studying ethnomusicology at the University of Natal at a time when government crackdowns on black political activity were provoking waves of violence in the townships. If it looked too dangerous on a particular day, Mkhiz would call Muller and tell her not to come. Sometimes she and her research partner would pick up the dancers and sneak them back to the university for practices. “We went in some very dangerous times,” she says.

Her parents were engaged in their own work in the communities around them, and they rarely talked about the risks they each faced. “You didn’t want anybody really anxious about you. So you just did it,” Muller says. “You’d just say that people live with that kind of [violence] every day.”

While in graduate school at New York University, she entered different townships around Durban to study women’s music and dance performance within a Nazarite religious community, known as the Shembes. It was still a dangerous time in South Africa.

“You would think as a white person, I would be a target, but they looked out for me. I had a Shembe sticker on the back of my car and I wore a prayer gown when I was on the site,” Muller says. The religious community’s members instructed her to keep it on for protection. Muller still had a few brushes with trouble. One day, members of a gang called the Magnificents repeatedly bumped her car while she was waiting to pick up her research assistant. “I drove away, and when I picked her up later, I told her never to be late again.”

After graduate school Muller taught at her alma mater, now named the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where doors began opening to black South Africans who may not have been steeped in music theory, but were good musicians. Her department began a comprehensive project to research and record indigenous music. “These were the performance genres that white people didn’t know about, which had been around for a very long time,” she says. “You suddenly realized there was a lot to be done.”

Muller would also find that to be the case in Philadelphia.

Soon after she came to Penn, she got a call from Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, the energetically persuasive director of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships. “We need to meet,” he said. Harkavy was interested in starting a gospel project involving the local community and put Muller in touch with a CCP board member, Winnie Smart-Mapp, who was passionate about gospel music. This contact culminated in several projects involving the West Philadelphia community, which eventually led her to the Quba Institute.

“In the 1990s gospel was the number one leisure activity in the black townships [of South Africa],” Muller says. “You’d have a competition and 700 groups would arrive. But I had no idea about how important Philadelphia was. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is the first African American church independent of European control in this country, is housed right here in Philadelphia. This was the first major stop beyond the Mason Dixon Line for freed slaves. It’s an extraordinarily important place.”—S.F.

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